Net Loss

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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.

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler
Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.