Funding the fight on gangs

Budget committee rejects governor’s $1.2 million plan to expand program

Jake Henshaw • Desert Sun Sacramento Bureau • July 27, 2008

SACRAMENTO — Struggling with a troubled budget, legislators are at odds over a million-dollar proposal to increase the state’s role in fighting criminal gangs just as Californians are preparing to vote on boosting it by hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The No. 1 public safety issue is gangs across the state of California,” Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said.

Pacheco over the past year has filed two injunctions in crackdowns against two Riverside County gangs, including one in the Cathedral City and Palm Springs area.

In 2006, all three of Palm Springs’ homicides were gang-related. Two of Cathedral City’s four homicides were, according to California Department of Justice statistics. About a quarter of California’s homicides in 2006 were gang-related.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded to such local calls for help by creating a new director of gang and youth violence policy with an initial budget of $446,000 last year that the governor proposed increasing by $1.278 million this year.

The joint legislative budget committee rejected the proposed expansion as too expensive in a year when the state faces a $15billion shortfall and approved another $446,000 for 2007-08.

“We did not fund new programs,” said John Ferrera, chief of staff to Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, who was co-chair of the joint budget panel. “This is a good example of a difficult decision we had to make.”

Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, who co-chaired the budget committee, supported tightening public safety and other budgets because of budget problems.

He added that this was one area where he disagreed with the panel on the still-pending budget because the gang issue represents one of the state’s “most urgent needs.”

The governor’s office, in a statement, said “We are continuing to work with the Legislature to provide the necessary resources to (the anti-gang office) in this difficult budget year, so this important program is all to further the governor’s commitment to combating the state’s gang problem and making our street safer.”

Schwarzenegger has yet to take a position on Proposition 6, an initiative on the November ballot that is heavily focused on gangs.

The measure would increase penalties for gang-related crimes and raise funding for a range of law enforcement and rehabilitation programs by a net $365 million by the 2009-10 budget, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“The Legislature consistently shortchanges local law enforcement’s fight to rid neighborhoods of violent gangs,” reads a ballot argument for the initiative signed by Pacheco and other law enforcement officials. “Proposition Six asks voters to prioritize one percent of California’s General Fund budget for local law enforcement without raising taxes,” the pro-argument continued.

Opponents say Proposition 6 calls for massive new spending on unproven programs that would undermine existing, effective crime-fighting efforts.

Evaluating programs

There are no reliable statistics on the number of criminal gang members statewide, but the Department of Justice tracks gang-related homicides.

The numbers statewide have gone from 506 gang-related homicides in 2000 to a high of 730 in 2002 and then down to 645 in 2006, the DOJ said.

The state passed a landmark law in 1988 that reworked criminal laws to aid in gang prosecutions, offers a variety of anti-gang grants to local agencies, and the attorney general at times forms task forces tailored to help combat particular gang problems.

Most recently, the governor signed Senate Bill 1126 by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, that allows prosecutors to go after any assets of gangs or their members to pay for damages to a community from activities like drug dealing, extortion or prostitution.

Lawmakers also are considering Assembly Bill 1033 by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, that authorizes criminal charges against parents and other adults for recruiting minors as gang members.

Eight years ago, a state watchdog agency concluded the state might spend as much as a billion dollars to combat gangs and youth violence. But no one knows the extent of such programs or how much they spend, something that is an initial top priority for Paul Seave, the state anti-gang coordinator appointed by Schwarzenegger, to determine.

After nearly a year on the job, Seave said he hopes in the next four to six weeks to finish compiling a reliable list of these programs and then begin to identify gaps and overlaps as he works toward a rundown of the most effective ones to distribute statewide.

In developing the list, Seave said he’s talked with more than 100 local officials and he eventually plans an all-out push to get the word on what works.

Programs that work

Even though he’s still gathering information, Seave said he can identify some successful programs, including the California Conservation Corps, which he said does a “fabulous job” of helping school dropouts, and nurse visitation for single, pregnant young mothers.

Pacheco cited his countywide gang task force and youth accountability teams that help at-risk kids stay in school as examples of the range of locally successful anti-gang programs that communities need.

In addition to collecting information about effective programs, Seave said he also wants to gather gang data more quickly, develop criteria for evaluating anti-gang programs, and raise foundation money.

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