By Gary L. Yates
Newspaper coverage of gang-related fatalities in California paints a portrait of overwhelming and uncontrollable violence.
Editorial pages describe communities affected by violence as bullet-ridden war zones that sound like Baghdad, Iraq.
Community members are portrayed as helpless victims. Labeled as "urban terrorists," perpetrators of violence are cast as monsters beyond reform. And the only proposed cures for this epidemic are more police officers and more prisons.
Traditionally, policymakers have found it difficult to support programs that are not guaranteed to produce a definitive result — unlike incarceration, for example — when public concern about crime and safety is high.
In Sacramento, it's difficult to support expenditures that might reduce crime and prison costs in years to come when voters are clamoring for action now.
However, missing from this picture is the proven effectiveness of public health strategies to eradicate the breeding grounds of crime.
Statistics show that violence prevention programs save lives and tax dollars — up to $3 for every $1 invested, according to a 1998 Rand report.
Throughout California, violence-prevention nonprofit groups are struggling financially, making it imperative that Sacramento respond.
The situation is similarly grim at the local level. Frustrated with what he thought were inadequate violence prevention efforts from local agencies and organizations in Salinas, Brian Contreras founded the Second Chance Family & Youth Services to provide mentoring programs for youth and community-based conflict resolution programs for gang members entering the juvenile system.
Since inception, the program has given "second chances" to more than 3,000 youth, ages 11 to 18.
Unfortunately, because of budget cuts last year, the Second Chance program lost $400,000 of its annual operating budget, and this year will lose another $100,000.
The program has been forced to reduce its staff from 14 to three.
This at a time when Salinas' crime rate is skyrocketing, with 17 of the recent 19 homicides being gang-related, and the majority of victims being under the age of 20.
As California faces a daunting state budget deficit, tough decisions will have to be made about the most effective allocation of resources for violence prevention programs.
One can simply hope that elected officials in Salinas and Monterey County will do the right thing.
Given the complexity and obtuse language of state budgets, many elected officials and their staffs may not even know how proposed cuts will affect their constituents.
But policymakers also have a responsibility to fund effective programs that address the causes of violence. They also must inform the public about prevention programs that work.
By doing so, they can help the nonprofit sector improve the health and safety of our communities throughout California.
GARY L. YATES is the president and chief executive of the California Wellness Foundation, which has funded violence prevention programs over the past 11 years.
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