Children's advocates, as well as youth development and juvenile justice experts across the nation, have serious concerns with S. 132, the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2009, authored by Senator Dianne Feinstein. S. 132 misses the mark on how to deal effectively with gangs and gang violence. While it does contain some prevention and intervention-focused programs (roughly $400 million) , the bill continues to promote and devote the vast majority of its resources to expensive failed policies that may exacerbate the gang problem and crime while disproportionately affecting youth of color (over $700 million).
What has been strange is that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has not only endorsed this bill, but that he has also failed to endorse S. 435, the Youth PROMISE Act, which has garnered overwhelming support from children's advocates across the nation. The Youth PROMISE Act would invest $1 billion in evidence-based prevention and intervention efforts supported by local communities to put gang-impacted youth on a positive path to success.
While the Mayor may prefer the Feinstein bill because it also provides gang suppression dollars that are popular with police departments anxious to receive funding, even major law enforcement leaders such as Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, have publicly endorsed the Youth PROMISE Act. In fact, Sheriff Baca, Executive Board Member of the nationally prominent organization, Fight Crime, Invest in Kids, stated when testifying at a House hearing, "The Youth PROMISE Act, is perhaps... from a criminal justice reform perspective... the most significant legislative act that this Congress will ever have considered in the history of the Congress."
For a mayor who has continually called out for more resources to be put into youth programs in order to keep kids out of trouble and off the street, his failure to endorse S. 435 is very puzzling. That is unless one realizes that the mayor might have his sights set on Feinstein's senate seat when she retires. Given that the senator is now well into her late 70s, this could happen sooner than later. If the mayor is trying to curry favor with Senator Feinstein by withholding his support for a the Youth PROMISE Act, a bill that better accomplishes his own goals for curtailing gang crime, this would be a true tragedy.
The Feinstein bill creates a variety of new crimes and penalty enhancements, which are problematic for several reasons. First, current state and federal laws - particularly in California - are sufficient to combat gang activity through prosecution. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers repeatedly emphasize the need for more community resources, rather than additional, duplicative federal sanctions, to address gang violence. While there is absolutely no doubt that there are many instances where incarceration is necessitated, it should not become the automatic default solution for addressing most youth crimes. Studies show, for example, that children who encounter the juvenile justice system for the first time have lower recidivism rates when they are placed in diversion programs instead of incarcerated. Second, incarceration is not only expensive -- incarcerating one youth can cost $100,000-$200,000 per year -- but can be counterproductive; research shows incarceration can actually strengthen gang affiliations. Third, policies that increase incarceration also disproportionately affect youth of color. For this reason, eight members of Congress, six from the Congressional Black Caucus, formally withdrew their support for the House version of the bill in the last Congress.
Alternatively, research shows that per each dollar spent on evidence-based programs there can be up to $13 in corresponding cost savings, and intervening early can save the public nearly $5.7 million in costs over a lifetime. Programs such as Functional Family Therapy or Multisystemic Therapy cost less than $7,000 per youth and significantly decrease recidivism. Implementation of these research-based alternatives which are family-centered and community-based have been met with success across the country, particularly in Missouri, which has maintained a 7% recidivism rate (as a comparison, L.A. County's recidivism rate is nearly 70% including probation violations). And other jurisdictions, including Washington D.C., New Orleans, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Jose and soon, San Francisco, are following Missouri's lead.
Given the current economic climate in California, it is even more disheartening to hear that Mayor Villaraigosa is not endorsing the legislation that makes the most fiscal sense in addition to common sense.