Mystery Science 2000

Mesa is home to a multimillion-dollar quest to quantify gang-intervention techniques

Mesa was a natural. Civic leaders had formed a gang prevention committee in 1992. Composed of educators, agencies such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, elected officials and representatives of law enforcement and the justice system, the committee offered the kind of approach Spergel supports.

In 1994, Dan Zorich -- a longtime Maricopa County adult probation officer with a social-work background and experience working in prisons -- was assigned to head up case management. Unlike the other four model programs, Mesa decided to house all services under one roof -- a strip mall near Broadway and Country Club. Zorich hired staff, including Mary Jane Perry, who had run former U.S. senator Dennis DeConcini's east Valley offices for more than a decade; Perry knew her way around the federal bureaucracy and Mesa government. Probation officers -- both adult and juvenile -- and outreach workers were added to the mix. The Mesa Police Department, the lead local agency, devoted three officers.

Before they could start working with gang members, project employees had to develop an evaluation process. A target area -- from Main Street south to the Superstition Freeway and Mesa Drive west to the city limits -- was identified. A control area was also established. The idea is to maintain a test group of 100 program participants whose behavior could be compared with 100 gang members/associates in the control area over three years.

Data is collected in two ways: from police records, and one-on-one interviews with project participants. It's not easy, Spergel says. It's hard to know when a kid is telling the truth about what's going on on the streets, and with the Valley's transient population, kids move in and out of the area, which muddles data collection.

"It's difficult in the evaluation, and it's expensive, and you get a lot of resistance," he says. But he insists that the expenses and the effort are worth it. "Everyone thinks they've got the answer, but we've gotta have hard data."

The Mesa Gang Intervention Project began accepting gang members in 1995.

As the program ends its third year of working with kids, everyone involved -- including Spergel, the Justice Department and Zorich and his staff -- agrees that outreach has been the biggest challenge.

There are two reasons for this. First, this program is primarily an academic model. Data collection is the goal, and that means extensive paperwork as well as the fact that some candidates for the program must be turned away.

Zorich says he supports the project's goals, but admits the paperwork has been a frustration.

"It's costly," he says. "We're working with 120-plus youth, and I have 14 staff members. You look at that ratio, that's pretty expensive. . . . We could [involve] more kids than we're doing. The reason the number's so small is because we have a lot of paperwork associated with the evaluation process. With the staff we have we could easily double -- or triple" the number of kids involved.

The rigidly enforced target area has also been a source of frustration.

"It's difficult when we get a call from a parent who lives across the street from our boundary, and we can't do anything for that kid. All we can do is tell them what other resources are out there. That's literally happened," Zorich says. ". . . It's not only hard to explain to families, it's hard to explain to other professionals. Probation officers that need our services are real frustrated working with a gang member, would love to send a kid, transfer their case over to us, but because they live in another area, we won't take the case. Well, you think that officer's going to transfer another kid that he gets, who does live in our area, a few months later? No. The fact that we refused to assist them with their client is probably going to be a reason for them to forget about our program later."

Justice's Jim Burch admits, "It is difficult, and a lot of communities, as a matter of fact, are now saying that they can't force themselves to accept a program" that's not open to everyone.

Outreach worker Kimo Souza says the frustrations are necessary to assure reliable data: "We're a research model. I fully understand that. We've got a control group outside, so the more that we help the control group, the less difference that we're going to see. But on the other side, I think we have to balance the ethical responsibilities that we have within ourselves. So although we don't count these people as numbers [in the program], we do refer them to places that can help them."

Chuck Katz, a professor at ASU West who is one of the local evaluators, says this is simply science. "It's analogous to a medical trial. You give 100 patients a particular drug, you give 100 patients a placebo, and you see which is more effective."

"For all we know," he adds, the Mesa project "could increase the gang problem."

The second impediment to outreach has been staffing. Zorich says he went through eight outreach workers before hiring the current pair. Part of the problem, Irving Spergel says, is that Mesa was slow to accept one of the tenets of his project: Outreach workers must be former gang members who can speak the kids' language. One of the closest they have had is Mary Ruiz, a middle-aged woman who grew up on one of the tougher blocks of the target area. Ruiz (who is still on staff) relates well to younger kids and girls, but she wasn't quite what Spergel had in mind for impressing hard-core gang youth.

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