Net Loss

Graffiti blights many areas with high rates of juvenile crime.

Robert is in his mid-teens and has been involved in gangs since he was 10.

That kind of admission has become almost a cliché in the past decade, as the media, the courts and the political system grapple with the pressing problems of a dysfunctional society and the increasingly violent nature of its children.

Robert fits the stereotype well, and there are other things about him that make him perfect for one of the many taxpayer-funded programs designed as a societal safety net for so-called at-risk youth.

He is a member of a gang that he prefers did not see him quoted in the paper. He believes -- knows -- he'll be beaten or worse if his real name and gang affiliation are revealed.

Like many youngsters who fall from families to gangs and the streets, he has seen more than his share of family problems and abuse. He has seen family members beaten. He has felt himself an outcast.

He moved with his family to the Valley several years ago and immediately fell in with the wrong crowd. He sniffed paint, and used and sold marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. He has been in and out of numerous counseling programs. None has worked. He is a bright kid, but has shown little interest in school. He says one day he'd like to help other troubled kids. He has been in and out of jail and juvenile detention. He has been on probation. He wants to leave the gang, but he says he can't shake its "state of mind."

"Gangs give you a bigger front," Robert explains. "They give you more power. I know if I really need help, it'll be there for me. It's almost like a second family. For some people, it is their family. We keep in touch."

Now, Robert is in trouble again because he chose not to call his probation officer one day.

Anti-gang programs haven't really done Robert much good. They kept him busy for a few hours or a few days that he otherwise might have spent getting into serious trouble. The criminal justice system -- punishment and intensive supervision -- also hasn't impressed Robert.

The grip of the gangs has proved too strong for Robert and thousands of Valley kids like him. It is very hard to pry them loose.

"One of the things I'm afraid of is if I get out of it, I won't know how to live," says Robert. "In the gang, I know I can depend on people and they can depend on me.

"If I get out, I won't know who to go to. It means new friends. It would almost be like losing another family."

Gang violence has been a serious problem in the Valley for more than 20 years, although gangs have been a more benign part of the social structure for much longer. Gang violence rose steadily through the early 1990s; between 1990 and 1994, gang-related homicides climbed 800 percent, police records show.

But while gangs have grown, city and state officials have been slow to react; in Phoenix, many gang and youth programs have been in place for only a few years.

And many are arguably ineffective. A recent New Times survey of city agencies, schools and civic groups in the Valley neighborhoods most plagued by juvenile crime revealed a haphazard network of programs, inconsistent in their focus and their quality.

New Times examined programs offered by hundreds of schools, parks facilities, teen centers, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, Salvation Army centers, Little Leagues and other community organizations. They touch on everything from child care and T-ball to gang prevention, tattoo removal, tutoring and parenting skills. Many institutions lack facilities, staff and, in the case of programs that attempt to get kids out of gangs, follow-through.

The survey also found a profound lack of safe venues outside of school for teens in these crime-plagued neighborhoods. Most schools depend entirely on outside money and programs for after-hours activities. If schools can't or won't host them, these neighborhoods have few alternatives for children within easy walking distance.

Most religious institutions also have turned their backs on the neighborhoods that need them most. A similar New Times survey of 310 religious organizations in the same neighborhoods found only about a dozen programs geared toward neighborhood kids.

Moreover, many of the programs available to Valley youth are aimed at intervention -- dealing with kids already in gangs and already in trouble.

But experts have said for years that prevention should be the focus -- keeping kids from getting in the gangs in the first place. That means catching kids at a very young age and fixing entire families. And confronting poverty and economic blight in neighborhoods that have little, if any, political voice.  

There's a whole raft of reasons kids can't -- or won't -- participate in programs that might keep them out of gangs: no transportation, language barriers, fear of passing through another gang's turf to get to the local Y. Some hard-core gang kids simply refuse the hands that reach out for them. They prefer the gang life -- their "homies" are loyal and the lifestyle exhilarating.

During the 1980s, when gangs were solidifying their power bases in the poorer neighborhoods of south and west Phoenix with a rampage of terror, city leaders were reluctant to acknowledge the gang problem. They didn't want Phoenix to be seen as another Los Angeles, which was reeling from gang violence.

In fact, in the 1980s, as street cops scraped the bloody detritus of gang warfare off sidewalks and out of crack houses, Phoenix officials were slashing budgets for the kinds of programs and activities that might have kept kids like Robert from finding solace in the gangs to begin with.

In many neighborhoods, kids had little choice but to align with gangs. Former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, who served from 1990 to 1994, says getting youth programs going was like "pulling teeth." Johnson, who advocated for more children's programs, says the tendency of government officials, "instead of trying to solve the problem, was to blame the schools and say it was their job."

Although after-school programs are no panacea, people who work with kids say they are among the most effective tools for muting the lure of street gangs. One reason is simply practical -- most youth crime occurs right after school, between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m. After-school programs give youngsters who wouldn't otherwise be prone to gang activity an alternative.

Twenty years ago, the City of Phoenix knew the value of such programs, and paid for more than 120 after-school and school-based recreational programs aimed at restless youth.

By 1982, they had all been eliminated.

The reason had nothing to do with the quality of programs or whether kids were being helped. Instead, it was a dispute over money. The city started charging schools for sanitation services. To make up the difference, the schools decided to charge the city "rent" for city after-school programs that were housed at school campuses. The city, facing a recession, simply canceled all the programs. And cash-strapped schools had no funds of their own to offer.

Private programs sponsored by Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, youth sports leagues and other grassroots organizations continued to offer kids wholesome diversions. But lack of transportation and money left too many of them on the streets.

It wasn't until 1993 that the city began to reenter schools with after-hours programs. (The schools still have little in the way of school-funded after-hours programs.)

By then, however, gangs had taken the place of more productive alternatives for thousands of Phoenix kids. Maricopa County juvenile court records show juvenile crime in Phoenix climbed more than 50 percent between 1987 and 1997, from 12,300 offenses to 18,700. Probation officers say much of the juvenile delinquency rate reflects gang activity.

The state was even slower to recognize the gang threat. Lawmakers created a cabinet-level drug policy council in 1987 but didn't add gangs as an emphasis until 1996. In fact, the Arizona Drug and Gang Policy Council, as it's now called, didn't produce an anti-gang strategy until last year.

That's not to say that legislators were unaware of the violence. While they all but ignored the need for prevention programs, lawmakers passed sweeping juvenile justice reforms in the mid-'90s, aimed at prosecuting juveniles as adults and otherwise increasing penalties for violence.

Another state entity, the Drug and Gang Resource Prevention Center, was established in 1990 -- "gang" was added in 1992 -- to keep track of federal, state, local and private programs. Documents on file at the downtown center show that year after year, program providers pleaded with the state for more money to deal with burgeoning caseloads, but to no avail. And last year, one lawmaker, Representative Barbara Blewster, pushed to kill the center itself.

"We never get to the level of choosing priorities and establishing long-term strategies," says Phoenix Police Commander Mike McCort, who has studied gangs, and in 1995 authored a violence-prevention strategy for the city. "We shotgun programs. And that's a waste of taxpayers' money."

Much of the credit for what has been accomplished goes to parents and community activists who decided to keep their neighborhoods from disintegrating.

In the early '90s, activists realized the local governments were doing little to address gang crises in their neighborhoods. Grassroots efforts were born out of necessity and have survived mainly through the efforts of dedicated residents.  

In 1990, the Southside Posse, the Broadway Gangsters and other gangs struggling for power and control of the crack-cocaine market held much of South Phoenix hostage. People slept on bedroom floors, terrified of random drive-by shootings.

Marcie Escobedo, a divorced mom working at the time as a secretary for the City of Phoenix, says she seldom heard the term "gang," but she knew enough to fear for her children's lives.

"I remember sitting in church with my son and my daughter, and every Sunday for about three Sundays in a row, I know there was a funeral for a 16- or 17-year-old kid," Escobedo recalls.

She thought: "I'm not going to wait until my son is on the ground to do something. I've got to do something -- I don't know what."

She called on Valley Interfaith Project. Founded in the '80s, VIP is a coalition of local faith-based organizations that strives to promote social justice by encouraging members to act, and showing them how.

With the help of other parents, VIP and her own parish, St. Catherine of Siena, Escobedo started an after-school program that eventually drew kids from all over South Phoenix. That program, coupled with increased enforcement efforts by police, made a noticeable difference, she says.

But such efforts are rare in a community plagued by violence. And while the Catholic Church should be commended for its efforts with VIP, the fact remains that Catholic parishes are the most prominent churches in many of the Valley's toughest gang neighborhoods. Of the 74 parishes in the Valley, only nine are enrolled as members of VIP.

"The church is never doing enough in social services and neither is anybody else," says Monsignor Edward Ryle, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference and one of VIP's founding members. "The state of Arizona isn't, other churches aren't. Nobody's doing enough."

This coming year, a coalition of public and private entities led by the City of Phoenix plans to take its Violence Prevention Initiative to state lawmakers for funding. The plan was created over the past two years after 300 civic leaders recognized that tough law-and-order responses to violence weren't enough. The initiative proposes more emphasis on prevention, help for families and economic aid to communities.

Similar efforts are already under way at the state level.

Governor Jane Dee Hull, in conjunction with Arizona State University and the U.S. Department of Justice, is developing a pilot program that would provide local communities with the cash to create programs aimed at making their communities safer. The idea is to bundle state, federal and other funds and dole out meaningful amounts to a few communities, according to George Weisz, the governor's policy guru on law enforcement issues.

For the first time, a coordinated effort would direct money to prevention programs and economic development initiatives, not just law enforcement, Weisz says.

"We need to do a better job," says Weisz. "And we need to ensure that we get the best bang for our buck, and we think this effort may be the way to turn around entire communities."

Phoenix Parks Director James Colley walked into a political maelstrom when he took over the department in 1979.

Phoenix had decided to impose a new sanitation service charge on all customers, including schools, beginning in 1980. That year, the fee averaged at least $32 a month for each school.

School superintendents -- already hit by dramatically rising inflation and energy costs of the 1970s -- balked. They decided to impose their own fee on Phoenix, essentially as rent on school facilities which the city had been using for years for after-school and recreational programs.

Colley recalls that he and then-city manager Marvin Andrews met several times with school superintendents about the fiscal feud. "I think they simply wanted to find a way to offset the sanitation fee," Colley says. "But Mayor [Margaret] Hance looked at the costs and didn't think it was right to begin paying schools for providing after-school programs."

The number of schools that lost programs was substantial. City records show that Phoenix had after-school programs at more than 120 schools in the 1960s. More were added in the 1970s.

"When I was teaching out at Starlight Park in those days," says Dr. William Sullivan, superintendent of the Cartwright School District in west Phoenix, "the city parks department had a full day Saturday program at numerous schools. They did after-school programs. And they had a full five-day program going in the summer."

All of those programs were pulled by the 1981-82 school year. Through the rest of that decade, Phoenix ran no after-school programs at schools.  

And the decline in city youth programs didn't stop there. The recession of the early 1980s led the city to reduce pool hours, leave some pools closed, and shrink additional recreational programs.

The lack of programs couldn't have come at a worse time for many south and west Phoenix neighborhoods, which had growing numbers of young people.

Although juvenile crime climbed steadily citywide, experts say it's difficult to draw a direct relationship between lack of programs and the rise in juvenile crime.

"There are so many other factors that go into that mix," says Mike McCort.

Still, says Michael Whiting, a 28-year veteran of the parks department, those lost dollars may have "contributed to the problems we saw in communities where the kids didn't have those opportunities."

Throughout the 1980s, the handful of Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and recreation centers at city parks were about the only after-school alternatives to the street.

Cities throughout the Valley suffered from the same lack of programs. Sports leagues were available in season. But programs on school campuses were limited to summer months. During the winter, they existed mostly at schools and in areas where parents could afford them.

"Part of the problem, and it continues to be a problem," says Robert Donofrio, superintendent of the Murphy School District in west Phoenix, "is even if schools had wanted to run a lot of programs, there just wasn't a whole hell of a lot of money to do it with."

Donofrio and other school officials say the state Legislature's failure to adequately fund schools over the past 15 years made it difficult for most schools to initiate their own after-hours programs.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, gangs and wanna-bes were leaving their graffiti calling cards on walls all over Phoenix.

In the Green Gables neighborhood of central Phoenix, Alma Williams remembers seeing a big red scrawl that said "Be a Crip. Kill a Blood," and wondering what in the world was going on. She and her neighbors formed the Green Gables Neighborhood Association, to find out and begin fighting back. Williams says one obvious problem was the lack of programs for the growing number of young children in her neighborhood.

Across town, in the Westwood neighborhood near I-17 and Camelback Road, Donna Neill and her neighbors began seeing similar scrawls. With help from the police, they traced it to apartment complexes in the area.

"Most of them were owned by slumlords," says Neill, who has since become a well-known community organizer for her work in the neighborhood. "There was no landscaping, no basketball courts; there was absolutely nothing for the kids living there to do, and no place for them to do it."

Demographic data showed the area to be one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Phoenix. But it had no parks. The nearest YMCA -- 17th Avenue and Missouri -- and Boys and Girls Club -- 23rd Avenue and Missouri -- were too distant for the under-10 crowd to reach on foot.

Neill and her cohorts convinced the city to close a local street on Saturdays from October through May. Around 1993, with help from the city's parks department, they set up an outdoor recreation center, offering food, drinks and games.

More than 100 children -- ages 6 to 17 -- usually showed up, she says.

For the first two years, Neill and neighbors applied for grants and solicited donations from businesses to pay for the program, which they called Kid Street.

In 1995, the city parks department agreed to run the program, investing $76,000 into it since then. Neill says the program always tried to do something during the summer. This past summer, a $25,000 grant from the Stardust Foundation enabled the program to run every day from June through early August.

Neill and her neighbors continue to lobby the city to build a park in the area.

The efforts of Neill's neighborhood to solve the problem are more aggressive than those of most other neighborhoods. Yet they typify community-based attempts to do what government was slow to do in dealing with gang crime and blight.

Four years ago, Neill founded NAILEM (Neighborhood Activists Interlinked Empowerment Movement) to unite community organizations in anti-gang and anti-blight efforts.

"It was pretty obvious early on that we can't rely on just the police, the city, the schools or the community to solve this," Neill says. "What's needed are programs that combine all those things and get them working in the same direction."

The missing ingredient in the anti-gang struggle, Neill says, is organization. "We're just not going about it in an organized way. Just look at gangs. They're organized. They don't facilitate or study or report or debate about it. They don't have workshops about it. They know what they have to do and they get in and do it."  

Patricia Buckmaster, a community organizer with the Murphy Cougar Neighborhood Association, says that another problem early on was the scarcity of political officials willing to "come down and take a look at what was happening out here. You had to be blind not to see it."

Eventually, community activism and the criminal realities the police were encountering every day did get the attention of officials at City Hall. In 1985, the city Parks Department had created a mobile recreation unit, called City Streets, to bring some recreational programming to underserved areas. The city expanded that into the department's at-risk youth division in 1993. That same year, the city Parks Department began to reestablish after-school programs. More than $7 million has gone into 76 school and 14 other sites near schools since then. This year the city council approved another $2.4 million to add about 90 more schools to the roster over the next three years. An additional $11.3 million in city funds has gone into programs sponsored by the at-risk youth division.

In 1991, the police department, with funding from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, created the anti-gang GREAT program (Gang Resistance Education and Training) for seventh graders. The program was to provide follow-up to the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which targets fifth and sixth graders. GREAT and DARE have poured millions of dollars into anti-drug, anti-gang classes in this decade. Another estimated $9 million has gone into Block Watches, Fight Back and Weed and Seed Programs. And city departments as varied as Equal Opportunity, Neighborhood Services and Housing have poured millions more into efforts to reclaim neighborhoods.

Private agencies have also experienced similar expansions. YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs have worked to develop partnerships with schools to fill gaps in children's programming. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix have established satellite programs at schools in areas with little access to programs. And private nonprofit organizations such as the Carl Hayden Community Youth Center, at 23rd Avenue and Van Buren, and the Phoenix Youth at Risk Foundation, in the Garfield neighborhood, have established programs to bring kids in off the street.

But in neighborhoods where gangs are entrenched and juvenile crime remains a significant problem, the cure still lags far behind the causes. City officials say they have more requests from schools for after-hours programs than the city has filled. And even where public and private programs exist, some current and former public officials say they aren't reaching the kids with the greatest needs.

"What happens over a certain period of time," says retired Phoenix police chief Dennis Garrett, "is groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and different church organizations fall into a niche and start to think, this is out of our area. Whether through lack of funding or contentment with what they're doing, they don't go beyond that. And there's always a new group of kids developing beyond what those programs serve."

This summer, New Times surveyed programs in the Valley's 10 neighborhoods with the highest rate of juvenile crime, which officials say reflects the toughest gang neighborhoods. The survey found a sprawling patchwork of programs lacking no clear focus, direction or long-term vision or priorities.

Too many of the programs lack continuous funding. Too few have been evaluated for long-term effectiveness. And most are cobbled together with an unreliable variety of federal, state and local public and private sources.

Some areas have no parks, libraries or public swimming pools within easy walking distance. Many have no practical access to Little Leagues, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs. The Valley YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs have sought to change that in recent years by taking their programs to where children are. But the effort is hampered by lack of funds.

Boys and Girls Clubs "touch 15,000 kids here," says Rick Miller, former director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Phoenix.

Still, he says, "We ought to be asking how many kids don't get served by B&G Clubs, YMCAs, Little League teams. I think a lot more kids are not being served than are."

And even when there are programs, many kids can't -- or won't -- go to them.

Manuel Avitia, who has two young children and lives near 24th Avenue and Maricopa Street in Phoenix, says there are too few parks and too many gang members frequenting the parks that are near his house.  

Elsewhere, walking to community centers, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs means passing through some other gang's turf or encountering drug dealers.

"The problem is you try to go there with little kids," says Angelica, 13, who used to live near 31st Avenue and Van Buren and now lives near Glendale, "and there's all these tweakers there smoking and using and offering stuff. So I don't go to the parks."

Manuel Ramirez, principal at Garfield School, at 13th Street and Roosevelt, says turf is a big concern for his students. In his neighborhood, the Boys and Girls Club is on the north side of the I-10 freeway. "There's a pedestrian bridge there, but kids won't go over there because they know better."

Current programs also lack consistent funding for gang-intervention and prevention.

"One of the big difficulties with that patchwork," says Cathy Colbert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, "is you've got federal money, state money, local money, foundation money. And most of this money comes in at different times. Everybody's fiscal year may be different. You may apply for a grant and not get it for six months."

And grants don't last forever. Colbert notes that good programs seeking renewal have to compete for shrinking dollars alongside bad programs, even after they've been in existence for several years.

The failure to develop a comprehensive vision for children's programs has also led to significant duplication of services and costs.

In the Westwood neighborhood, for instance, the Phoenix parks department plans to build a community center. Donna Neill says the neighborhood badly needs the center, but only because nearby Westwood school has been relatively inaccessible.

"It really doesn't make any sense," says Neill. "Here we're building a community center and there's a perfectly good school sitting there, locked down with a fence around it. It should be open and willing to be a partner with us."

Dr. Carol Peck, superintendent of the Alhambra school district, which includes Westwood school, says the school is doing everything it can to involve the community. But it's sometimes difficult to meet the demand. "There are hundreds of organizations who want to use our facilities," she says. "It's not just one."

Last year, for the first time, Phoenix officials used a computerized demographic mapping program to correlate high juvenile crime areas of the city with programs designed to combat that problem.

"What we saw was the west side of Phoenix was underserved," says Deborah Dillon, education program coordinator for the city.

Critics say the city doesn't need an expensive mapping program to determine that. But Dillon says it was the mapping tool and the graphic results that finally convinced the city council the deficiencies were real.

Now that policy makers are finally ponying up the cash for programs for troubled kids, the experts are starting to argue more vociferously over how that money should be spent. Many worry that substantial amounts of dollars are being wasted on programs that just keep kids busy after school and in the evenings, but aren't preventing them from joining gangs.

"Recreation can be a good hook," says Dwayne Baker, assistant professor of recreation management and tourism at ASU, who has been studying after-school programs in Arizona and Texas. "But what happens after you get the kids in the door? What happens after their interest in basketball wanes? There's got to be some emotional meat to these programs if they're really going to do the job."

The growing consensus is that programs need to address the family and parental troubles behind many youth problems.

More important, kids need to be reached at a much earlier age. Some say 10 years old is too late to deal with serious but basic issues such as implanting a sense of values, teaching right from wrong and warning of the consequences of gang-banging.

"I would argue that these programs should start at and prior to birth," says Baker. "We do very little in this society from a parenting perspective. We have higher expectations and more rigorous standards for getting a driver's license than we do for becoming a parent."

The difficulty in shifting the focus to prevention and away from intervention, says Rick Miller, the former Boys and Girls Club director who now heads a program called Youth at Hope, is that the well-worn phrase "at-risk youth" has the most credibility when it comes to getting money from most government agencies.

"If I said I'm going to provide a program where kids can have fun and grow into productive members of society, they're going to laugh me out of the board room," he says. "They want you to tell them how many kids you're going to stop from taking drugs, how many kids you're going to stop from joining gangs, how many kids you're going to stop from dropping out of school, or getting pregnant."  

Call it prevention, call it intervention. Call it whatever you want. All experts agree: There's no substitute for parental involvement.

In Marcie Escobedo's south central Phoenix neighborhood, the fragile calm was shattered one February day in 1990 when word spread that Greenfield Elementary School had been sprayed with bullets. Although the news eventually proved to be a myth, the event got parents' attention.

Escobedo recalls a community meeting of more than 200 parents and teachers. The media showed up.

"The only thing I remember . . . is two parents finally getting up -- and the TV cameras focused on them -- and one parent saying, 'Your child is a gang member. You can't control him.' And the other parent saying, 'I know he is, but I'm asking for help.' They weren't listening to each other, they were just throwing blame," she says.

Escobedo knew what to do. When the school principal asked her to head the PTA, she agreed with a condition: that he allow her to invite Valley Interfaith Project along.

The first step: What did parents want?

They were stumped. No one had ever asked. Soon, though, they had worked up a list.

At the top: a safe, enriching after-school program for their kids.

"Not a baby-sitting program, they were very definite about that," Escobedo recalls over a recent lunch at Los Dos Molinos, not far from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, where Escobedo has belonged since she moved to the neighborhood in the early '70s.

"They wanted something that if their kids were behind in school, that this would supplement it and enrich their learning capacity."

And so Escobedo worked with other parents to create an after-school program that fit the bill. The program was free, run out of St. Catherine's, and eventually drew kids from all over south Phoenix. The theme that first year was "Exploring Cultural Diversity Through the Arts." The parents wanted their kids to learn about art and music, since public schools had decimated those programs. They also demanded tutoring.

With VIP's guidance, Escobedo went to City Hall and fought for funding for after-school programs, including her own. They hired art and music consultants and recruited education majors from Arizona State University who needed internships to do the tutoring. Snacks came from St. Mary's Food Bank.

Yes, there were gang members -- or at least wanna-bes -- in the program. Escobedo is sure of it. But it wasn't an issue.

"We didn't label them. . . . We treated them like, 'You are kids. You are community kids. Your parents want you to learn, you want to learn,'" she says.

The difference between the St. Catherine's program and other after-school programs, Escobedo says, came down to parental involvement.

"There was ownership in decision-making. They [parents] weren't an advisory. They weren't there just to raise money. They were shaping what they wanted for their kids, they weren't just sitting and listening to someone else tell them what they needed," she says.

Escobedo is proud of the difference she's made, both in her own household and in her community. Her son graduated in May from ASU with a business degree. Her daughter is attending South Mountain Community College.

And while there is still violence in south central Phoenix, Escobedo says it's nothing like it was in 1990, when she sat in church and prayed her family would survive the week. She warns that efforts must continue.

"Gangs and violence will come to where people are not involved in their community."

Federal leaders are interested in making sure people are involved. And they're using Arizona as the first test site of a new kind of holistic prevention program.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Arizona State University and Governor Jane Dee Hull's office are in the planning stages of developing a pilot program called "Sustainable Safe Communities." Although a few efforts have been made in individual communities around the country, this will be the first statewide program of its kind, says George Weisz, Hull's criminial justice adviser.

Federal funds, state grants and other revenue will be bundled together and focused on just a handful of communities: urban, rural and tribal. The idea is to focus not just on law enforcement, but on social and economic factors -- prevention programs, job training, infrastructure development -- that contribute to a safe, sound place to live.

Weisz says, "One of the toughest things we see, and it happens a lot, is cops go in and they're going to do a very good job of sweeping an area clean for a short period of time, and it just comes back. And the reason is, you don't have the follow-up with a lot of the resources you need to stop crime to begin with."  

The program is similar in its philosophy to the Phoenix Violence Prevention Initiative, a sweeping plan that hopes to give individual communities the money and encouragement to get a grip on violence in their own neighborhoods.

Weisz says he's unsure what the pot will ultimately hold, but it could be as much as $30 million; state leaders are also talking to private foundations about additional donations.

So why have our leaders waited so long to do something that appears so smart?

Because, Weisz says, it's not an easy political choice to make. Some communities may lose out.

Yes, he admits, a job training center in a community that is not one of the half-dozen targets may not get as much money as it has previously.

But the hope is that if the pilot program is a success, it can be expanded to include more communities.

Along with this new effort, Weisz promises, will come increased accountability, for all prevention programs -- a chief concern of his boss.

"You know, there's a lot of good, quality programs out there that are all well-intentioned. They're not necessarily the best use of the funds or producing as good results as other programs are," he says. "What kind of accountability standards are there? . . . How do we know they're working? And you ask people and they say, 'Well, we don't know. We've heard this success story on this program, we've heard this person say it's changed their life, we've obviously had failures, too.'

"But how do you know whether it's really working?"

The Arizona Prevention Resource Center is sponsoring a conference in December that will address the issue of accountability, something that leaders admit has been ignored until very recently.

"There's going to be some tough stuff," Weisz says of the upcoming conference. "We're going to tell people, 'Hey, this program isn't working. Sorry, guys, but it's just not.'"

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