Gang-prevention bill hits a snag with a co-sponsor’s criticism

By Bill Bartel – The Virginian-Pilot
December 26, 2009


U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott’s two-year effort to refocus the battle against juvenile and gang crime to prevention programs that would cost billions of dollars appears to be picking up steam.

More than half the members of the U.S. House – 234 lawmakers – have signed on as co-sponsors of his bill.

The Newport News Democrat’s legislation would spend $2 billion over five years to underwrite what he calls “evidence-based prevention programs” to reach high-risk youths before they turn to gangs and crime.

But U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, who had signed on as a co-sponsor, is now raising a red flag, saying the bill won’t work. The Chesapeake Republican, who has tried for years to get a tougher anti-gang sentencing bill passed, said he became a co-sponsor in June in the hopes of getting his proposals included in Scott’s bill.

Scott, however, said calls for tougher sentencing do not address the continuing cycle of gang crime.

“You can say things as often as you want. The research is absolutely clear…. Mandatory minimums are a waste of taxpayer money,” said Scott, who contends that the public wants the attention shifted to prevention. “They’re sick and tired of watching people shout simple-minded slogans and pass it off as crime policy.”

Scott’s Youth PROMISE Act – an acronym for “Prison Reduction through Opportunity, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education” – involves steering federal grants to local agencies or groups that can demonstrate they use proven methods to prevent young people from joining gangs or turning to crime.

The legislation also would provide millions to local police for victim- and witness-assistance programs in neighborhoods or cities with gang problems.

Scott said that despite considerable research and examples of successful community prevention programs, government funding mostly has focused on capturing criminals.

If young people can be steered away from crime, the financial savings to policing and the justice system will more than pay for the prevention programs, he said.

Jackie Jackson, director of Girls Inc. of the Greater Peninsula, a nonprofit group that provides after-school and educational programs for Hampton girls, said she could use the money and would welcome the scrutiny that comes with it.

“It’s going to bring more accountability,” Jackson said. ” ‘What exactly are your programs? How are your programs going to make a difference? Are we just here for housing children and not teaching them anything?’

“At the end of the day, you have to show people that your children have changed, because of your program, for the better.”

Forbes said he doesn’t oppose crime prevention programs but doubts that the Youth PROMISE Act will weed out wasteful and ineffective spending.

“I guarantee you that with Bobby’s bill, every group in America is going to say it’s a prevention program,” Forbes said. “You’re going to have hundreds of groups line up… because for most of those groups, this is about dollars.”

The two other congressmen representing Hampton Roads, U.S. Reps. Glenn Nye, D-Norfolk, and Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland County, have signed on as co-sponsors of Scott’s bill.

Earlier this month, the bill was approved, 17-14, by the House Judiciary Committee, with Forbes joining other Republican committee members to vote against it. The vote came after the committee rejected Forbes’ attempt to add his gang-sentencing plan to the legislation.

Forbes has argued that tougher sentencing laws are needed for gang members – including the younger members.

He proposed a so-called “gangbusters” bill that would make gang-related crimes of murder, violent assaults and kidnapping all federal crimes that could require sentences up to life in prison or, for murder, execution.

Forbes’ bill would allow the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults in federal court. The measure passed the House in 2005 but failed in the Senate.

He has reintroduced it since then, but it has not progressed to another floor vote.

Tackling prevention by itself would bring nothing but frustration, Forbes said, whereas requiring harsh sentences for younger gang members would force them to turn on their older leaders, undermining the criminal operation.

“If you do not go after 16-, 17-year-old kids, what happens is the gang network will continue to let them do the dirty work,” Forbes said. “We’re talking about hardened criminals who are killing people for no reasons at all.

“I’m not saying we don’t need prevention money. What I’m saying is what this will do is miss the meanest of the mean and the toughest of the tough…. It will also put all our resources in one direction.”

Scott argues that locking up more people will not solve the problem.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – about 700 of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London. The rate is substantially higher for black Americans, who are locked up at a rate of more than 2,000 per 100,000.

Many elected leaders know that stronger prison sentences are not solving crime problems but “politically, there’s no constituency for prevention,” Scott said.

The focus, he said, has to be saving children before they get involved in criminal activity.

“Juvenile crime is like a conveyor belt,” he said. “Next year, you’ve got a whole new group. If you haven’t changed the trajectory, they’re going to be doing the same thing as the last group.”

Posted by on Dec 26 2009. Filed under Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

1 Comment for “Gang-prevention bill hits a snag with a co-sponsor’s criticism”

  1. i believe that kids these days are really being dragged into gangs…i belive that we can set up programs for the youth,to teach them,and to have them realize that gangs are dangerous,and what the consenqunces are to being in a gang……………
    sincerly damian and gabby garcia

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