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Policy Wanks

State Senator Chris Cummiskey co-chairs the SAFE Commission, which is studying ways to heighten school safety.
Paolo Vescia

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.

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.

Says Democratic Senator Chris Cummiskey, "It boils down to a baseline philosophical difference among the people who are elected in the state."

He and other legislators on both sides of the aisle contend that House Speaker Jeff Groscost, Senate President Brenda Burns and other conservative legislative leaders have blocked any significant investment in prevention. Neither Groscost nor Burns returned calls for this story.

"Those leaders simply don't see any role for government in this arena," Cummiskey says.

Gerard says the conservative political faction considers government involvement in family issues as a form of interference. "They see it taking the place of families."

Then, she says, they reason that "families aren't taking care of the things they should be, and it's government's fault. I look a little bit more [at the] big picture. Maybe these things are family responsibilities, but if families fail, we pay the price."

Arizona's failure to invest in effective prevention and intervention has left the state with what Freestone characterizes as a "wail 'em and jail 'em" policy that invests heavily in law enforcement and detention. Freestone and others say politicos who must run for election don't want to be seen as weak on crime.

But increasing numbers of police officials, judges and business leaders are insisting that the decadelong preoccupation with enforcement is not working.

"You talk to a lot of people still and they say, 'We need tougher laws, more police officers on the street,'" says Phoenix Police Chief Harold Hurtt. "And, yes that will provide a certain degree of public safety. But that's not the long-term answer."

Nor is it the best use of public funds. Governor Hull pointed out in this year's State of the State Address that the "cost of effective prevention is less than 20 percent of the cost of enforcement and incarcerations."

The Deloitte report concluded that effective prevention programs could save about one-third ($44 million) of the approximately $132 million that Arizona annually plows into juvenile justice and corrections.

Says Freestone, "Somewhere along the line you'd think a good businessman -- a fine conservative -- would come along and say there has to be a way that intervening to eliminate the human misery developing in families can also help the bottom line."

Former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson, who was defeated by Governor Hull in the last election, says that troubled kids suffer politically from a lack of broad-based interest groups "clamoring for funds for them."

"If you want to talk about adult softball," he says. "I can pack a room with 1,000 people. If you want to talk about programs that relate to whether or not we're going to build or not build a street and create traffic in a neighborhood, people will show up in droves. But if you sit down to talk about what types of parks and recreation programs or after-school activities can we put together that would truly make a difference in reducing juvenile crime, the hall's empty. There's nobody there."

During his terms as mayor (1990 to 1994) and city councilman (1985 to 1990), he says, "just getting people to realize the need for programs could take months." And implementing them could take years. "It took me almost four years to get the city to open pools for free in the summer. And people came to the council and called us communists for doing that. That's a small thing, but the point is that for kids who really need programs to stay out of trouble, two or three years is too late. They're gone and you're paying for it for the next 50-60 years."

In 1993, several years after gangs had solidified in Phoenix, the City of Phoenix expanded its at-risk youth division and began investing heavily in after-school programs. Since then, it has committed about $11.3 million to at-risk programs and more than $9 million to after-school activities.

Former Democratic state senator Alfredo Gutierrez says those investments have been a significant step in local prevention efforts. Gutierrez chairs the public policy committee of the Phoenix Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) -- a broad-based effort to advance violence prevention at all levels of government. Co-sponsored by the City of Phoenix, the Arizona Supreme Court, Maricopa County Attorney, Greater Phoenix Leadership, Maricopa County and ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, the initiative was started in 1996 to come up with ways to tackle juvenile and gang-related crime and violence in the Valley.

 

Last year, the group -- including more than 300 business, community and government leaders -- recommended 13 strategies for violence reduction. They included initiatives to strengthen families and neighborhoods and fortify preschool, kindergarten and after-school offerings for children. Its recommendations for improving neighborhoods led to last year's efforts at the legislature to close the loopholes that have made Arizona a haven for slumlords.

Gutierrez and others say that Phoenix hasn't been the only local government to expand funding for effective prevention and intervention programs. In recent years, Glendale has added to its own after-hours programs for families and children.

Last year, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors earmarked about $250,000 for innovative interventions to reduce truancy -- a key indicator in juvenile crime -- in 20 Valley areas with the highest rates of juvenile crime.

Judge Portley says the intent of what's called the zip code project was to invest in programs that are already working in Valley communities. The money has enabled schools and other public and private community organizations to leverage additional grant and foundation funds. According to county data, the first-year results show promising declines in juvenile court referrals, which reflect all juvenile crimes, averaging about 8.4 percent. Reductions in some targeted areas were even greater.

County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who supports more funding for prevention, says the lack of more county funding for such programs reflects the "conservative" makeup of the board and the tendency of politicians to let these problems stay out of mind so long as they remain out of sight.

Supervisor Andrew Kunasek concedes that "people who live up in the north end of my district, in the Tatum Ranch area, might drive into areas that have gang problems, but for them the bigger issues might be bike paths or horse trails."

Kunasek says he'd like to see the zip code project expand, but doesn't know how much more money the board of supervisors can dedicate to it.

Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon argues that the state could be adding substantially to local efforts. "Before local government looks at a sales-tax increase to fund more programs, we should look at the money we've got already," he says.

In fact, the legislature's Juvenile Justice Coordinating Committee, along with several subcommittees, is reviewing the recent Deloitte study to determine how the state should implement the report's recommendations.

Senator Tom Smith, a Republican and former school principal who advocates for more spending in the area of prevention, chairs the committee. He promises there will be legislation that reflects the study's recommendations on the table for the next legislative session in January. Specific points haven't been finalized, he says, "but we know the key to all of this is really education. We need to get to children and families earlier."

Senators Cummiskey and Freestone say the SAFE Commission also plans to draft legislation in the area of education. It will probably propose significant reductions in class sizes in the early elementary grades. Like Smith, Cummiskey doesn't think full-day kindergarten or funding for preschool programs has much of a chance of approval this year.

Gutierrez says the VPI is about to recommend prevention measures to the state. He won't make any predictions. Yet he thinks this prevention initiative is different from previous ones.

"In the past," he says, "these kinds of reports and recommendations came from people who were perceived to be social-service advocates -- liberals and educators who were perceived to have a self interest in increasing things like after-school programming."

But VPI's coalition includes "police chiefs and working police officers. You've got the county attorney and you've got some hard-nosed business people involved in it. Those are new elements to this coalition and they certainly bring credibility."

However, their presence and credibility doesn't guarantee new legislation.

Gerard says that family and children's programs have had business and law-enforcement backing in the past. "But when it came down to the other vested interests they were really down at the Legislature for, this wasn't really their priority.

"Unless they're going to make this their number one issue -- not RICO funds or their tax relief or this, that and the other things they want -- I don't get that excited about hearing they're on board."

 

Police Chief Hurtt, who has worked closely with VPI, concedes that past failures with initiatives like this are often the supporters' own doing. "We only go part way, then we stop," he says. "Because of that past record, I think the general public doesn't have much confidence that things are really going to happen this time, that people are going to stick with it and carry through."

George Weisz, Hull's criminal justice advisor, says the current political climate won't make it easy to advance prevention measures. Yet he cites as progress an upcoming pilot program, "Sustainable Safe Communities," which the state is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Justice and Arizona State University. The program will consolidate state, federal and other available funds and disburse them in concentrated grants to targeted communities, to improve not only their law enforcement, but also the social and economic conditions that are known to contribute to gang and juvenile crime.

A number of legislators say the best hope for genuine reform may lie outside the capitol, in the "Healthy Children, Healthy Families" proposition being readied for the November 2000 ballot. The plan, being pushed by the Children's Action Alliance and the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, would ask voters to approve using about $120 million annually in the state's tobacco settlement money to fund a variety of expanded health care and family services.

Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children's Action Alliance, says that, under the initiative, about $35 million would go toward "Smart Beginnings," a range of prenatal, preschool and family mentoring programs that gang and juvenile-crime specialists consider vital prevention measures.

Regardless of the route Arizona takes to expand funding for gang and juvenile-crime prevention and intervention, experts say the state can't afford to dawdle.

Juvenile crime trends have dipped in the past few years. But Cherie Townsend, supervisor of the Maricopa County Department of Juvenile Probation, says that trend is not likely to continue.

"What we're noticing about the growth of Maricopa County," she says, "is that a third of it has come from new births. That's important to us because that means if those people stay here, a few years down the road, those kids will potentially impact the dependency system or the delinquency system."

She says that sometime around 2003 "we're going to hit another peak in the population of youth 8-to-17-years old. The 14-to-17-year age range is the peak one for juvenile crime. But what happens with children from birth to age 3 probably has the greatest impact on that rate of delinquency. They certainly impact the demand for resources in education and other support for families. So if we really want to invest in prevention, we should do it now."

Read more stories in the Hard Core series.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com


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