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Turning Point in the Gang Crisis | The Nation

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Turning Point in the Gang Crisis

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Until now, the political class has been paralyzed with fear of being tarred as "soft on gangs." Villaraigosa, whose own roots are in the East LA dropout culture, has tried to toughen his image by promising to hunt down "the top ten" shot-callers in the city, a typical public relations gesture for big-city politicians. But his new gangs initiative is the seed of an alternative model. The traditional LA hardline approach is becoming the grim American future. Without much public notice, America incarcerates nearly 25 percent of the world's inmates while having only 5 percent of the world's population. Since Los Angeles is the epicenter of the globalization of gangs, an alternative might spark wide interest.

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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Villaraigosa and California will be pivotal. In November, state voters will decide on Proposition 6, a harsh measure authored by Mike Reynolds, who drafted the state's original "three strikes" initiative which mandates life terms for nonviolent felonies. Proposition 6, which expands the grounds for incarcerating juvenile offenders as adults and mandates life sentences for home robbery, will be a test of the changing public mood since the frenzied nineties.

On the same November date, Los Angeles voters will decide on an annual $40 parcel tax to provide $30 million annually for gang prevention and intervention programs. While public support is over 60 percent, the measure requires a two-thirds super-majority for approval.

Villaraigosa is considering a run for governor, which might pit him against Attorney General Jerry Brown, the former iconoclast now campaigning as a hardliner against gangs. Brown worked overtime to defeat a 2006 citizen's effort to modify the "three strikes" law by requiring that the third offense be a violent, not a nonviolent, one.

Whether he runs statewide or not, Villaraigosa will have to challenge the state to shift funding from incarceration to prevention and intervention. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though a critic of the current crony contracting system, has been unable to face down the prison guard union that benefits from the ratio of inmates and has become a top contributor to political campaigns.

As chair of the national mayor's conference on urban poverty, Villaraigosa also can challenge the national priorities that have resulted in increased rates of poverty and inner city neglect during the past eight years.

Beyond a California role looms a presidential contest with huge potential for impacting the debate on crime, gangs and prevention. On the table is an innovative proposal for federal funding for community-based prevention and intervention programs, HR 3846, by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), chair of the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security. Scott, a strong believer in what he calls "evidence-based programs," has tired of the annual procession of politicians seeking to burnish their credentials with costly "touch on crime" amendments. Whether crime goes up or down, he says, members keep proposing more punishment regardless of results or costs. Scott's is the first measure in years that exclusively funds prevention and intervention, authorizing $2.9 billion annually. The funds would be channeled through representative state and local councils under performance-based guidelines.

Scott's nemesis is Senator Dianne Feinstein who, with Representative Adam Schiff, has a bill perpetuating a vast expansion of the punitive approach, while including only modest funding for prevention and intervention. The Feinstein-Schiff bill will include more life-without-parole sentences for teenagers, leading Human Rights Watch to complain that "the United States is the world's worst human rights violator in terms of sentencing youthful offenders to life without parole.... In contrast, there is not a single youth service the sentence of life without parole anywhere else in the rest of the world."

Like many, Villaraigosa prefers the content of the Scott bill but will swallow the harsh provisions of the Feinstein-Schiff bill if LA receives its share of funds. Scott remains adamantly against Feinstein-Schiff, with the permission of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the support of the Congressional Black Caucus. Scott argues that reckless spending on punishment has failed, and devours state and local budgets for alternatives.

The fate of these bills may rest on the presidential outcome this November, where a vote for McCain-Palin will be a boost for Feinstein-Schiff.

So far the presidential campaign is oddly devoid of the usual rants about gangs and violence, which may be another sign that the fever of recent decades is ebbing at last. With 2.3 million behind bars in America, as against second-place China's 1.6 million, the incarceration race may be exhausted.

Or the latest chapter of Willie Horton is about to begin. The producer of the 1988 Willie Horton ad, Floyd Brown, is raising funds for television ads attacking Barack Obama as another Michael Dukakis. Obama's alleged offenses include voting against an Illinois bill extending the death penalty to murders where "gang-related," and crafting state legislation to mandate that police interrogations and confessions be taped. If elected President, Obama's instincts might be divided between sympathy for the Scott approach and a centrist deference towards Feinstein. But he would be very open to the arguments, Scott says. That's why Floyd Brown already is circulating an Internet spot attacking Obama, asking "Can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

It's predictable that the missing issues of gangs, poverty, dropouts, the inner city and policing will return to the center of the presidential debate, with huge implications for the outcome. America will either continue imprisoning the largest number of young people in the world, bankrupting its domestic budget and vainly trying to arrest its way out of a quagmire, or begin seriously searching for more Bo Taylors to help.

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