by Gary L. Yates
The recent drug-related arrest of a well-respected director of the job development program at Communities In Schools of the San Fernando Valley (CIS SFV) caused many observers to ask whether it’s really worth investing in organizations that hire former gang members to help at-risk youth turn away from gangs, finish high school and find decent jobs.
The answer is Yes. CIS SFV is a gang intervention and prevention organization that our foundation helps fund. Its diverse programs—some led by former gang members able to gain the trust of hard-core gang youth—serve more than 1,000 youth and young adults each year.
The arrest occurred during a flurry of criticism about the effectiveness of the L.A. Bridges Program—a 10-year-old, city-run partnership of community-based gang-prevention organizations (including CIS), schools, law enforcement and families of at-risk youth. Together, these events have thrown a shadow of doubt over public and private efforts to deter gang violence.
But setbacks are not sufficient reason to stop trying. The California Wellness Foundation strongly embraces the belief that the people directly affected by an issue are often able to devise the most effective solutions for their communities.
We need to stay focused on violence prevention strategies that are working to protect our citizens and communities. The following are key points to keep in mind.
It goes without saying that gang violence is overwhelmingly gun violence. Gun violence was first seen as a public health crisis in the early 1990s, when violent crime and homicides reached epidemic proportions. Incarceration obviously wasn’t working as the sole deterrent to gun violence. It was time to focus on intervention and prevention—giving at-risk youth real alternatives to a life of crime.
Who are our at-risk youth? A Harvard Medical School study of 1,500 children, published last year in Science magazine, found that witnessing violence more than doubled the likelihood that a youth would become violent. Factors believed to influence the decision to join a gang include family members who belong to a gang and/or are incarcerated, gang-affiliated friends, poor grades in school, alcohol and drug abuse, and lack of parental supervision.
Since the early ‘90s, committed individuals have founded hundreds of grassroots violence prevention organizations throughout California. Programs range from hard-core gang intervention to individual counseling and mentoring, structured after-school tutoring and recreation programs for at-risk middle-school students, and life and job skills training for gang-involved teenagers.
The after-school component is crucial. Why? Because research by the U.S. Department of Education has shown that on school days, violence against youth spikes between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. According to the FBI, the crime rate against youth triples during this time.
Gun policy reform is another key aspect of violence prevention. In 1999, the pioneering California state law banning the sale of assault weapons was strengthened to make it the toughest in the nation. Since the mid-1990s, California cities and counties have adopted more than 300 firearm ordinances. Bans by 56 communities on the sale of “Saturday night special” handguns led to the 2001 state law banning “unsafe” handguns.
Gun violence is still one of the leading killers of youth under 24. On any given day, the Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Blog provides a grim list of young people gunned down on the streets. But in the years since violence prevention has taken root, the number of youth killed each year by gun violence in California has dramatically decreased—by 43 percent from 1991 to 2003. Apart from a slight (6.3 percent) increase in 2006, gang violence in Los Angeles has declined steadily since 2001.
To be sure, the violence prevention effort lacks major, long-term statistical studies of the effects of specific programs on gang and gun violence. The primary obstacle is money. But dozens of personal testimonies from former gang members who turned their lives around cannot be ignored. Nor should we ignore the results achieved by individuals like William “Blinky” Rodriguez.
In 1990, Rodriguez’s 16-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting. The trust he gained after forgiving his son’s killers at a face-to-face courtroom meeting enabled him to broker a 1993 peace treaty signed by 75 San Fernando Valley-based gangs. The treaty led to a 96 percent reduction in gang homicides in the Valley in 1994. That was the year Rodriguez founded CIS SFV/GLA.
Since 1992, The California Wellness Foundation has provided nearly $95 million for violence prevention grantmaking, with the goals of producing usable research, keeping policymakers informed and bolstering community efforts. But this amount is a drop in the bucket compared to the state and local funding needed in this immense effort.
Only through long-term collective action on the part of community leaders, schools, law enforcement and elected officials can we hope to further reduce the plague of gang violence.