At a time when gang activity remains stubbornly high after large declines at the end of the 1990s, activists and law-enforcement officials are worried that local budget cuts to prevention programs could lead to problems ahead.
This was a focus of the National Gang Symposium in Orlando, Fla., which ended Friday. A fact sheet released by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) notes that gang activity has plateaued between 2005 and 2009 (the latest year that data are available). Between 2002 and 2009, however, the number of gangs has increased more than 20 percent.
The concern now is that budget cuts could push that number even higher. The OJJDP, for example, is looking to cut 17 percent of its budget.
“When you do that, the first thing that goes is prevention and intervention programs,” says Joe Mollner, senior director of delinquency and gang initiatives for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, one of the participants in the symposium.
“One of the biggest trends is the proliferation of gang activity in prisons,” he says. “Members don’t leave their gangs behind while in prison, so when they get out and head back to the streets, things get worse.”
He and others say this trend is exacerbated by the prison overcrowding affecting nearly every state, especially California, which has just been ordered by the US Supreme Court to downsize its state prison system by one third, or about 33,000 inmates. “Because of cuts to jails and prisons, you have double and triple bunking which creates all kinds of problems,” Mr. Mollner says.
Panelists at the symposium sought to underline the importance of gang-intervention programs. One of the panelists, who was identified only as Jackie, spoke of the efforts of Fort Worth, Texas, which is expanding an antigang program despite budget cuts.
Jackie said she was saved from gang life by that program, called Comin’ Up, which is sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Worth in a partnership with the city.
Although she says she wasn’t “forced to join a gang” until age 13, she was closely associated with gangs since age 8 through her older brother. She says she started out with petty thievery such as stealing CD players and food and gradually moved up to carrying knives and involvement with drugs, which led to drive-by shootings.
When she was 14, one of the Comin’ Up program coordinators approached her in a park and told her of mentoring and counseling programs. Those led her to get involved in sports and to focus on graduating high school. The program helped her apply to college and get financial aid.
“They gave me transportation and helped me fill out forms, which was great because my parents weren’t around,” she says. "This program completely changed my life. If it weren’t for them, I would probably be in jail or living with my mom without a job and doing drugs and alcohol like the rest of my family.”
As it happened, she was able to walk away from her street gang, Barrio North Side, quit talking to gang members, get a job, and go to school. Now she is one credit away from graduating from Tarrant County Community College and wants to get a masters degree in secondary education or social work. She wants to teach, mentor, and continue as a counselor in Comin’ Up.
“This is really important because gangs are recruiting younger and younger kids all the time,” she says. “Kids just need to have alternatives and support. Otherwise they are just bored and get involved in gangs because there’s nothing else to do.”
Mollner lauded Fort Worth, which realizes money will be saved through Comin' Up because fewer youths will be sent to jail.
“One of the problems with gang prevention, intervention, and suppression programs is you have to put the money in up front and the successes are hard to measure,” says Mollner. “We’re finally starting to grasp that stopping the problem before it begins actually saves more money.”