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Gang Warfare

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You might not expect Bob Casey, the often-conservative pro-gun Democrat who represents Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate, to offer a progressive solution for urban crime. But Casey, along with Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), has cosponsored a newly unveiled anti-crime measure being hailed as a model of forward-thinking crime legislation.

Dubbed the Youth PROMISE Act, the measure intends to address gang violence from a preventative standpoint, rather than a punitive one. It would create community councils drawing from law enforcement, schools, and social and faith-based organizations, which would work to identify youth who are involved in gangs or are at risk to become so. It would also provide federal funding for job training and placement, mentoring, mental health and addiction treatment, and programs to help incarcerated young people re-enter society. (Similar legislation has been proposed in the U.S. House.)

Youth PROMISE "begins to introduce the whole issue of youth violence in particular from a public-health perspective," says Rashad Byrdsong, director and founder of Pittsburgh's Community Empowerment Association. Byrdsong and CEA have been doing outreach in favor of the bills.

Proponents -- including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch -- say such an approach is more effective and proactive than other gang-abatement programs, which have focused on punishment rather than prevention. There is, for example, the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, first introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 2005 and reintroduced in successive sessions. That bill sought to make gang membership a crime in and of itself, and to create databases of gang members.

Feinstein's measure "doesn't have a real clear definition of what's considered to be a gang member or a gang incident," says Byrdsong. "We're concerned that young people might be ... identified as a gang member when it might just be an association."

What's more, such measures are costly. A 2006 study by Washington, D.C.-based think-tank The Justice Policy Institute says the annual cost of maintaining a single bed in a youth-detention facility is between $32,000 and $65,000, and that the cost of building and maintaining that bed over 20 years is between $1.25 and $1.5 million.

"For non-violent or first-time offenders, there are legitimate alternative programs that keep them from turning into lifetime criminals," writes Casey spokesperson Kendra Barkoff in an e-mail. "And for at-risk kids, the right evidence-based programs can keep them from getting into trouble in the first place."

The act would provide annual federal grants for studying communities and implementing violence-reduction plans -- local governments and Indian tribes would receive the money and disburse it. The money will target areas with high crime levels and underperforming schools, Barkoff writes.

Most of all, says Byrdsong, Casey's legislation is about "empowering the community. It begins to address the whole issue of youth violence. What is the cost for prevention versus enforcement?"

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