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Attorney General addresses gang problem in Sacramento

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris stressed the need to treat the gang problem with a community approach using prevention, intervention and enforcement. Harris was the guest speaker at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s gang forum Tuesday night in Meadowview.

“We have to be smart on crime,” Harris said, eschewing the old notion of the only two choices being to be hard or soft on crime.

She likened the gang violence problem to a public health problem like an epidemic: The best way to prevent it is through inoculations and early treatment, but by the time it is being dealt with in the emergency room, it’s too late, and too expensive.

Harris said combating gang violence should be dealt with regionally, a point that Johnson emphasized in his opening remarks.

“Crime and gang violence doesn’t stop at city lines,” Johnson said. “It goes across multiple jurisdictions.”

Johnson said there are 60 gangs and about 6,000 gang members in Sacramento County, and that students in second and third grade are being peer-pressured into joining gangs.

According to Johnson, the city and school districts will be working together, since the schools oversee youths for seven hours per day during the school year.

They will combine efforts through after-school programs, joint use of facilities and a renewed focus on school safety, he said, adding that benchmarks will be set up so progress can be measured.

One area Johnson focused on was the reading level of third graders, a point he brought up at his State of the City address earlier this year.

“If you can read, you’re not going to jail,” Johnson said after mentioning that 70 percent of incarcerated people are illiterate and only 30 percent of Sacramento’s students are reading at their grade level by the time they finish third grade.

Harris agreed, saying there is a “direct connection” between public education and public safety.

Another aspect of gang and criminal behavior Harris talked about was the “revolving door” of the California criminal justice system.

She said the average prison sentence in California is two years, and 70 percent of people released from prison commit crimes again, highlighting the need for education and prevention programs.

One of those programs is the Ceasefire program through the Sacramento Police Department, which works with gang members to get them out of the gang lifestyle. To read more about the program, click here.

During the question-and-answer session following Harris’ remarks, William Boyer, a resident of Colonial Heights in Sacramento, said police are often viewed as a threat when they come into communities with gang activity.

Harris said that to stop the problem of gang violence, police need to work with the community and the schools and elected officials. She added that witnesses to crimes need to come forward and testify, a problem that plagues gang enforcement, as Sacramento Police recently told The Sacramento Press.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson attended the forum and said afterward that he agreed with Harris’ and Johnson’s remarks about gangs being a problem the whole community needs to work together to solve.

He also said that he wants to see various state violence prevention programs work more closely together and eliminate some of the redundancies so more resources can go to the actual problem instead of the bureaucracy.

Boyer, who was critical of police presence in the community, said he thinks Ceasefire is a very good program and a great start, but he wants to see more done, especially when it comes to funding to fight the problem.

“They show all these rich people on TV, big cars, mansions and beaches, of course these kids want that, but they’re poor,” he said. “They will get rich or die trying. They need to have more opportunities so they can be educated.”

Gregory King, who works with the Always Knocking nonprofit organization, said the Big Homie Street Team is a program through the nonprofit in which volunteers talk to kids on the streets and show them there are other options. Always Knocking is an organization focusing on ending youth and gang violence.

He said he thinks forums like the one Tuesday night are important, and they are having an effect.

“I’ve been coming to these for years, and each time, there are more new faces,” he said. “People are talking, and people are listening. It’s getting the community together, and people are going to react.”

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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