New Thinking Can Help Defeat Gang Violence

Gary L. Yates is the president and chief executive of the California Wellness Foundation, which has funded violence prevention programs over the last 11 years.

Newspaper coverage of gang-related fatalities in California paints a portrait of overwhelming and uncontrollable violence. Editorial pages describe communities affected by violence as bullet-ridden war zones that sound like Baghdad. Community members are portrayed as helpless victims. Labeled as "urban terrorists," perpetrators of violence are cast as monsters beyond reform. And the only proposed cures for this epidemic are more police officers and more prisons.

Missing from this picture is the proven effectiveness of public health strategies to eradicate the breeding grounds of crime. Statistics show that violence prevention programs save lives and tax dollars -- up to $3 for every $1 invested, according to a 1998 Rand report.

Here in Southern California, three visionary community leaders -- recipients of the California Wellness Foundation's 2003 California Peace Prize -- have created violence prevention programs that produce positive results.

After losing his 20-year-old son, Tariq, to gang violence, Azim Khamisa reached out in forgiveness to Ples Felix, the grandfather and guardian of his son's assailant. As founder and president of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation in San Diego, Khamisa developed a program for youths in which he and Felix speak about their experience.

The program explores the consequences of violence and discusses ways of dealing with conflict in nonviolent ways. A survey of elementary school children in San Diego showed that before Khamisa's program, only 7% said they believed that joining a gang was dangerous. After the program, that figure soared to 92%.

In Los Angeles, former gang member Bo Taylor founded Unity One, a street ministry that offers job opportunities and life-management skill training to formerly incarcerated youths. During the last four years, Unity One has helped more than 1,900 inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center learn how to interact with inmates of different backgrounds and gang affiliations.

As founder and executive director of the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, Karen Bass has led successful community-based anti-violence campaigns since 1990. Acting on research showing that communities with a greater density of businesses selling alcohol have a higher risk of violence, Bass' organization prevented the rebuilding of 150 liquor stores after the 1992 civil strife. The coalition worked with business owners to transform more than 40 of these sites into grocery stores, coin laundries and other community services.

These are just a few of the successful violence prevention strategies that have helped stem the tide of violent activity. Clearly, the current system is flawed. A Little Hoover Commission report points to the ineffectiveness of California's $1.4-billion parole system, in which parole violators account for two-thirds of newly incarcerated inmates.

As California faces the biggest state budget deficit in its history, tough decisions will have to be made about the most effective allocation of resources for violence prevention programs. Arnold Schwarzenegger's advocacy of last year's Proposition 49, which sought additional funds for after-school programs for at-risk youths, was a step in the right direction.

Covering violent crime exclusively from a law enforcement perspective is the shortest route to an attention-grabbing headline. But reporters and editors also have a responsibility to investigate the causes of violence and to inform the public of prevention programs. By broadening the coverage of violence to include a social and environmental perspective, the media can help us improve the health, safety and prosperity of our communities.

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