By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It worked. Both got probation.
Steven decided to give up gang life. Southeast Hollywood had fallen apart during Steven's last stint away, he says. Most of the leaders went to jail as a result of the Kmart stabbing. And then there was the threat of 12 years in prison, the fact that the cops knew who he was.
"You know what scared me, was the fact I'm not going to see my kids. I just realized what's important. . . . I grew up. You know what a lot of it was? That anger went away. I stopped feeling sorry for myself."
Even though Steven's dad had been in a gang, he had stopped banging when he had kids.
"My dad didn't do that bullshit to us. He didn't leave us hanging. . . . I ain't no punk. I'm a man now."
Steven admits, "I have had a hard time not being a gangster." For the first year he was out of jail, he says, he stayed home. He was depressed.
About a year and a half ago, Steven moved to Mesa. He meets with his probation officer once a week at the Mesa Gang Intervention Project (if he were in a normal probation program, it would only be once a month), and while he doesn't hang out at the project headquarters too much, he has attended group-therapy sessions hosted by outreach workers Kimo Souza and Tony Garcia.
"What I got was a lot of one-on-one with my probation officer and with Kimo. Just a lot of communication, you know what I'm saying? They broke that barrier that they couldn't be trusted. I had my guard up. I thought I was just set up in the system, set up for failure, they could do whatever they wanted with me and I've got nothing to say about it."
Something happened recently that solidified Steven's faith in the Mesa Gang Intervention Project. A couple of months ago, Steven was arrested after a friend was caught in a carjack. Steven and another friend were in a car nearby. Steven denies any involvement. He spent two-and-a-half weeks in jail, until his probation officer got him released.
"He gave me the benefit of the doubt. He didn't have to let me out," Steven says. "It's like this, man. My probation officer, I trust him a little bit. And that is a lot, 'cause no one trusts their probation officer."
Steven doesn't know if the Intervention Project would have helped him when he was 16. But it's helping now.
"A lot of events have turned my life around, but this definitely helps," he says. "I believe they're more patient here. I think that's all people really need, is a little more time. You know, they set up rules, regulations, you don't comply -- bam! You're gone. Sometimes people really want to be helped, but they just need a little more time."
". . . I don't for one second ever doubt their authority. Not for one second. I know who's in charge here. I am going to do what I have to do. I don't mistake their kindness for weakness. I respect their kindness, appreciate it and understand what I have to do. It took me a long time, but I believe I'm there. My attitude is there."
On a recent weeknight, Steven's younger brother dropped by the project to pick him up. While he was waiting, the outreach workers convinced him to enter the program, too.
The federal government's premier anti-gang program is housed in a Mesa strip mall.
The Mesa Gang Intervention Project suite is a maze of tiny offices holding police officers, probation officers and social workers. Project employees use high-minded terms such as "holistic," "integrated services" and "community mobilization," but the concept is as simple as a lesson on Sesame Street: cooperation. Put everyone at the table -- cops, teachers, outreach workers, probation officers -- and develop a comprehensive approach to helping a particular gang member, and his family.
The ultimate goal is reducing gang violence.
No gang members are required to participate. If an offender is assigned to one of the three probation officers at the project, he or she will go there to meet with him or her -- usually once a week. But offenders are not required to talk to the cops or the social workers housed at the project, or take part in the art classes, literacy training or other available services. With low-key encouragement, after a while, a kid like Steven might interact with someone besides his probation officer. And that might lead somebody away from a gang. Or at least away from gang violence.
But in the past four years, enough money has been spent on this program to have actually trained more than a few gangbangers to be rocket scientists.
Nationwide, the federal government has spent more than $11 million on site operation and evaluation of five pilot gang-intervention programs. Communities are required to kick in with funds and staffing, so the figure is actually much higher.