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 V.13 No.51 | December 16 - 22, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

A Smarter Way to Fight Gangs

Invest in our youth, not in our prisons

Last week I was amused to see a photo from the governor's press conference announcing a new "anti-gang initiative" in the morning paper. Our states' three premier antigang policy leaders stood shoulder to shoulder to announce their united front against the menace of juvenile crime. The trio's appearance was a political diorama to be savored and relished, one marred only by the essential falsity of their premise.

Gov. Bill Richardson, Mayor Marty Chavez and former D.A. (and likely future mayoral candidate) Bob Schwartz all agree that getting tougher on gangs is an issue that simply cannot be put off any longer. Their concern is that gang members are coming to New Mexico from California because our laws are so comparatively soft that they can operate here with impunity, a condition our leaders cannot stomach.

In reality, gangs, like any businessmen, will search for lucrative business opportunities, not comfortable ones. They also expect to go to prison—that's just part of the cost of doing business. Prison isn't a true deterrent for juveniles whose older brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins are all doing time. It's more of a trade school where refresher courses in crime can be taken.

The picture painted by our crime-fighting dynamic trio is not supported by the data (even though it meshes nicely with the lurid photojournalism on display on local television newscasts). The nation (and the state) is not in the grip of a juvenile crime wave. Pause. Repeat: there is not an epidemic of juvenile crime going on.

According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, between 1992 and 2002, nationally juvenile arrests for murder decreased by 67 percent; arrests for theft by juveniles decreased by 51 percent and juvenile burglary arrests decreased by 40 percent.

Unfortunately, the number of juveniles held in correctional facilities hasn't dropped as steeply as the crime rate. When states have invested in new youth prisons, they darn well intend to fill them up, even if it means they are sending kids to lockup who are guilty of minor, nonviolent offenses.

Luckily for us, Bernalillo County's Juvenile Detention Center is run by a professional in juvenile rehabilitation who recognizes that locking up youths for long periods of time is a guarantee that they will return to crime when they get out, so Tom Swisstack, also a state representative from Rio Rancho, has been ingeniously figuring out ways to divert juveniles from being imprisoned. The results are startling. The numbers of offenders in detention have gone down sharply.

By fighting juvenile crime using methods that are smarter, not tougher, Swisstack and his colleagues have been very effective in turning lives around, and in the process have saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

And there's the rub! Not only are the get-tough policies advocated by Schwartz-Chavez-Richardson ineffectual, they are incredibly expensive.

I have this recurring nightmare. In it, the number of young New Mexicans held in juvenile prisons goes up. The cost (some $35,000 per year apiece) becomes staggering. To cover the skyrocketing bills, education, mental health and youth employment programs are cut back, which in turn leads to more juvenile crime.

Apparently my nightmare is some politician's fondest dream. Sorry, I thought we were trying to reduce crime. This isn't a route that will get us there.

Look, we already have plenty of tough laws on the books against murder, drug trafficking, drive-by shootings, racketeering, auto theft—all the things we worry gangs will do. If they do those things we can currently arrest them and throw the book at them. What is being sought now is something different: It's an attempt to make belonging to a gang a crime. And that's a big problem.

Constitutionally, simply joining a group cannot by itself be punished. The individual has to be proven to have done something that hurts others. Further, how do you decide who's in a gang? I know, I know, the police gang unit says there are 80,000 gang members in New Mexico belonging to 150 different gangs (or some such similarly fantastic number).

But really? Who are they counting? There aren't gang membership lists, ID cards, categories of membership. It's all very informal, fluid, with lots of wannabes, veteranos and copy-cats moving in and out at the fringes. Is a low-rider club a gang? How about a motorcycle club? A softball team? A boy scout troop? How are you defining "colors," distinctive garb, recruitment?

My suggestion is to have us all take a deep breath and regain emotional control. We mustn't overreact. We know some things pretty definitely about youths in gangs and we shouldn't forget them. They need and they want precisely the same thing that every young person needs and wants: security, opportunity, belonging.

If we really want to eliminate gang violence, reduce gang crime and expand options to gang involvement, we will get there faster and cheaper by improving our schools, offering job skills training and providing ways to be recognized for positive actions.

Gang members aren't monsters, they are young people motivated by precisely the same things that motivate all young people. If we make the mistake of categorizing them, labeling them, criminalizing them, then we will reap the consequence—they will fulfill our expectations. And that's a very expensive way to go.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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