Los Angeles religious leaders on Wednesday called for an across-the-board re-evaluation of the region's anti-gang programs and renewed their plea for government officials to emphasize prevention instead of punishment.
At a news conference in which a mother told how three of her five sons had been killed in gang violence and another tearfully spoke of living in fear for her son's life, the clergy said that stiffer jail sentences and more prisons, while needed, will not solve the crisis alone.
What is needed, they said, are anti-gang programs that offer jobs, recreation programs, help in school, and adult mentors to at-risk youths.
With limited public money to fight gang violence, the religious leaders said, anti-gang programs that do not produce long-lasting results may have to be scrapped. They called for a major strategy summit in February involving local, state and federal officials to identify anti-gang programs most likely to have enduring effects and their funding sources.
Leading the clergy was Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the Roman Catholic leader of Los Angeles, who for two years has been locked in a political dispute over how public funds should be used to fight gang violence.
Mahony is a leading force in the Hope in Youth program, in which 10 Christian and Jewish denominations have set up parental and youth counseling, employment readiness training, tutoring and summer jobs for youth in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. Other nonprofit groups that work with gangs have complained that Hope in Youth has received a disproportionate share of city and county anti-gang funds.
Wednesday's proposals came a month after the area's top political and criminal justice leaders pledged new efforts to quell gang violence in the wake of a shooting Sept. 18 that killed 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen. The girl was a passenger in a car that turned unknowingly onto a dead-end street in a gang-infested area of Cypress Park. Police said a dozen gang members blocked the car's escape and opened fire, killing Stephanie and wounding her 2-year-old brother and the driver of the car.
The shooting provoked nationwide outrage amid new demands for a crackdown on gangs.
"Outrage is not enough," Mahony said Wednesday. "It's not adequate to be upset with the situation. It isn't enough for us to move to another city. It's not adequate for us to put more bars on our windows and doors. We really need to empower citizens, especially at the neighborhood and family level."
Joined by leading Protestant and Eastern Orthodox clerics, Mahony outlined a three-point program involving the review of anti-gang programs and their funding. He also said the Clinton Administration has indicated that a federal demonstration grant may be forthcoming.
Mahony said he does not necessarily envision Hope in Youth becoming the region's preeminent anti-gang program. Still, he and others left little doubt that they believe Hope in Youth fills the bill.
"We're hopeful that out of this survey a list will come of other projects that are doing similar preventive kinds of things. . . . We don't see ourselves emerging as the only or last approach," Mahony said.
Other religious leaders repeatedly stressed prevention before youths become involved in gangs.
The Rev. Paul A. Stewart, senior pastor of Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church at 971 E. 43rd St., said it costs $33,000 a year to house a prisoner and $18,000 a year for an education at the University of California.
Surveying the deaths, injuries and human misery caused by gang violence, the Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, said it would be unthinkable to ignore the need for prevention while looking only to law enforcement and imprisonment.
"If this were some kind of disease where a couple of hundred thousand people were being seriously affected in this way, and there were all these deaths and all these injuries and it was costing us an enormous amount to put these people in hospitals and to care for them . . . we would work like crazy at prevention," Borsch declared. "Prevention is the most important thing to do. Prevention is the wisest thing to do, socially, economically and morally."
Among the mothers invited to the news conference, held at St. Vibiana's Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles, was Maria Contreras of Los Angeles, who, in 1993, lost three sons in three consecutive months to gang violence.
"I have two sons left," she said. "One is 17 and the other is just 14 years old. I'm with them always, trying to save them because I've lost the others. I'm asking everybody to please support us."
Contreras said that, during the spring of 1993, her sons Pablo, 25, Jesus, 27, and Jose, 30, were all gunned down by gang members. She has since become involved with Hope in Youth to steer her two living sons from the same fate.
Rosa Soto's voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the anxiety she felt whenever 16-year-old Joey left the house.
"My greatest fear is that one day someone will come around and knock on my door and tell me, you know, that something has happened to my son," she began. "Every day he goes out I know he faces danger. . . . He's highly intelligent, but he seems like he is attracted to the bad things. And he has nobody to look up to. There's nobody there except for the gangs. I'm a mother who lives in fear and sometimes I feel I can't go on." She said she was grateful for a Hope in Youth parent support group.
As she spoke, her son, Joey--with closely cropped hair and wearing baggy pants and a white sweat shirt--put his arm on his mother's shoulder to comfort her.
Then he stepped to the microphone. He called Hope in Youth "a good program."
"It taught me self-esteem," he said, "and how to have a better relationship with my mom."