Policy Wanks

Arizona political leaders know the answers but can't seem to pass the violence-prevention test

Just mentioning last year's Arizona Juvenile Justice Evaluation Final Report, the latest and maybe the heftiest in a decadelong flurry of state-funded reports about gang and juvenile crime in Arizona, makes state Representative Kathi Foster sputter.

"How many more times do we have to sit through and rehash what we've been rehashing for 10 years?" she asks. "We know what's going on. It's not getting any better. And we certainly know what works."

Year after year, government studies like this recent one -- produced by Deloitte Touche for $730,000 -- have advocated prevention and intervention. They've called for more effective early-childhood and family-support programs that help steer troubled kids away from joining gangs or becoming criminals.

State Senator Chris Cummiskey co-chairs the SAFE Commission, which is studying ways to heighten school safety.
Paolo Vescia
State Senator Chris Cummiskey co-chairs the SAFE Commission, which is studying ways to heighten school safety.
State Senator Tom Freestone says Arizona needs to invest more in prevention programs.
Paolo Vescia
State Senator Tom Freestone says Arizona needs to invest more in prevention programs.

Study after study has identified prenatal care, mentoring programs, Head Start, full-day kindergarten and after-hours children's programs as the best ways to help distressed families and at-risk kids -- and reduce gang violence and juvenile crime. Studies have hammered at the state for lack of coordination. They've stressed the need to put considerably more state money into effective ways to fix the debilitating circumstances that engulf many children. And they've warned against the state's continued reliance on federal dollars to solve what experts agree are among the most complex and enduring of local problems.

But the state's efforts to fulfill those recommendations have been timid at best, sometimes even negligent.

In recent interviews numerous political leaders told New Times that Arizona's failure to address these problems is partly because politicians don't want to be seen as soft on crime, partly because elected officials are reluctant to interfere with "traditional family values," and partly because of a lack of state funds.

But the "empty pockets" claim, many say, is more a lack of political vision than of money.

"It's not a question of expenditures. It's a question of priorities," says state Senator Tom Freestone, a Republican who co-chairs the SAFE (Safety Answers for Education) Commission, which is studying how to improve the safety of children at and near schools.


Kathi Foster, a Phoenix Democrat, knows firsthand the disconnect between the action on the street and inaction at the state. She represents a patch of central and west Phoenix where gangs and juvenile crime have been prevalent. "I'm a pro-life Democrat," she says, "so I can tell my Republican friends, 'Yes, let's save the babies. But after we save them, we ought to be responsible for them.'"

She and other legislators say the state's failure to fund full-day kindergarten or to help schools pay for preschool programs -- both consistently listed as important components in preventing gang and juvenile crime -- exemplifies government's neglect of the issue.

Foster's area includes Alhambra school district, where student enrollment has been increasing an average of 4 to 10 percent a year over the past decade. Last year, it grew by about 1,000 students -- enough to fill a new school. Educators and community leaders say that many of the young children served by Alhambra schools need full-day kindergarten and some preschool programs, and the district has done its best to provide them.

But Arizona's formula for funding schools pays for only half-day kindergarten programs and, except through occasional grants, doesn't contribute at all to preschool programs, such as Head Start. That failure to fully fund those programs forces Alhambra and many other school districts to eat the cost of providing them, or cut other needed programs.

"The excuse we used for years was we didn't have good data about prevention and the value of these things," says state Representative Susan Gerard, a Republican whose central Phoenix district has had its share of gang and juvenile problems. "We had small studies and anecdotal stuff about things like Head Start. But now it's clear that early-intervention programs work. So that old excuse isn't valid anymore."

Maurice Portley, presiding judge of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court, says he's convinced that preschools and other early-childhood and family programs are the best possible investments in preventing juvenile crime. "I can sit here as a judge and pontificate like Zeus. But that's not changing a damned thing."

He believes -- and studies show -- that high-quality preschool programs help both children and families because kids are safe and many programs provide meals. Just as important, he adds, "the programs often draw in the families. That's what some kids are missing the most, having parents participating in their education."

He and others contend that the benefits of such programs significantly outweigh their costs. One long-term study of a Head Start-like program, which tracked disadvantaged children into adulthood, estimated that the return on every buck invested in the program was slightly more than seven dollars.

Jodi Beckley, Governor Jane Hull's advisor on human services, says there's no question that more needs to be done in the area of early-childhood programs. She also says the governor is aware of the problem with the education-funding formula, and is looking for ways to fix it.

But she says that, given the legislature's struggle last year to pass the Students First measure to fund schools, the fix isn't likely to occur soon, or come easily. This is the second year of the state's new biennial budget, so few major spending initiatives are likely to be offered. Beckley and many others at the capitol also say that programs straddling the two worlds of family and education -- as many prevention efforts do -- have had a notoriously rough time at the Legislature.

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