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Gangs, Cops, Education and a Predatory Entity
"You don't have to worry about nothin' out here."
I have heard that phrase dozens of times from fellow transplants to my area, who came from big city areas.
"Watch out if you are ever in Nampa or Caldwell."
That warning also has been given to me dozens of times. It has always come from native Idahoans.
If you’ve noticed a decline over the last few years in the number of stories in this newspaper about violent gang-related crimes, give yourself a gold star. The Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office confirms that the number of such crimes has been on the decline.
Two different perceptions stringently persist, yet neither is entirely true.
The area including Nampa and Caldwell Idaho, about 20 miles east of Boise, had gained a sort of stigma over time as a dangerous place that was infested with gangs, drugs, and drive-bys.
Of course, those of us who live here know that perception was off base. Even when violent gang-related crimes made headlines on a regular basis, most of that was gang-on-gang activity. Other than property crimes such as graffiti, most gang-related crime — especially the violent kind — is gang-on-gang. And most of us have had no reason to fear going for a walk in our neighborhoods or worrying about our safety.
But with the help of federal funding, local law enforcement put an added emphasis on gangs and street crimes. This focus netted indictments of more than 50 gang members this year alone — many of them the “top brass” in those gangs, according to Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor.
Q. What kind of children get involved in gangs?
A. The kind with nothing better to do.
That is why I was also happy to see the Press Tribune report that Caldwell’s community policing program is credited for having a strong impact on gang activity.
Gang membership and recruitment is still an issue here. According to the Nampa Police Department, there are 583 documented gang members in the city, a number that has been increasing. But once a gang member is on the list, he or she remains there for a minimum of five years — not counting any time spent in incarceration. Therefore, it’s difficult to make short-term evaluations on gang membership trends based entirely on the official number of documented gang members. In an effort to curtail gang recruitment, the Idaho Legislature in 2006 passed the Idaho Criminal Gang Enforcement Act, sponsored by Sens. John McGee of Caldwell and Patti Anne Lodge of Huston. That stiffened the penalties for gang-related felonies and outlawed gang recruiting.
The delicate balance between a war on gangs and a war on communities is an ongoing and fluid challenge.
On the one hand, too much kicking in doors, storming low-income housing units, and rolling young people (usually of color) up like pretzels in handcuffs as they lay on the street for patdowns and arrests -- gives those branded as gang members great incentive to fight back -- and they rise to the occasion. This extreme provides great clips for the media. Gangs grow stronger, kids get "street cred," and police end up looking bullies who pick on children.
This dynamic was evident several years ago in Salt Lake City, prompting an assistant chief at the time, to disband the "gang unit" and take a different approach.
Are we fighting gangs? Fighting Drugs? Or fighting someone else's children? In Idaho, the perception of fighting a community, specifically Mexican immigrants, is a dangerous slope to go down, one that local agencies need to strenuously avoid.
On the other hand, when authorities don't fight crime well enough, such neglect hurts those who are most vulnerable, since most gang-related offenses are against victims in poor communities.
On July 1, a new Idaho law will take effect that will add more crimes under the umbrella of the gang-enforcement statute and increase prison time for gang-related offenses, the Press Tribune reports.
But has the prison industry has become a predatory entity, as Demico Booth writes?
"During the last two decades ... state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education." - naacp.org
Booth writes about black men, but the social dynamics he analyzes can also be applied to our discussion of Idaho's Mexican community.
Do minorities commit more crimes than whites? Is that why there are more of them in jail? Or are minorities caught, convicted and jailed more often (and for longer sentences) than their white peers?
On April 7th, the NAACP released a new report, Misplaced Priorities, that examines America's escalating levels of prison spending and its impact on state budgets and our nation’s children, according to naacp.org.
Misplaced Priorities tracks the steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system. Researchers have found that over-incarceration most often impacts vulnerable and minority populations, and that it destabilizes communities.
The report is part of the NAACP’s “Smart and Safe Campaign,” and offers a set of recommendations that will help policymakers in all 50 states downsize prison populations and shift the savings to education budgets.
The report includes these startling facts:
• The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment.
• The nation’s reliance on incarceration to respond to social and behavioral health issues is evidenced by the large numbers of people who are incarcerated for drug offenses. Among people in federal prisons, people in local jails, and young people held in the nation’s detention centers and local secure facilities, more than 500,000 people— nearly a quarter of all those incarcerated—are incarcerated as the result of a drug conviction.
• During the last two decades, as the criminal justice system came to assume a larger proportion of state discretionary dollars, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.
"When Idaho’s legislature reluctantly reached into its pockets for money this year, it gave colleges and universities a buck. Then it dug back in and handed the prison system 75 cents," reads a recent editorial in the Idaho State Journal.
The state’s universities were told to tap students for any extra funds they needed to provide higher educational opportunities. They swallowed a 7 percent decrease in funding and were given $209 million. However, the budgetary cell door didn’t slam shut on the Department of Corrections. It received a 5.3 percent increase in state money or $155.6 million.
A television ad campaign sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation urges Idaho’s students to “Go On” and enroll in post secondary programs after high school. It's message: "The future belongs to the educated."
There’s a dark side to the awareness campaign ... It says Idaho is number one in the nation — for students who don’t complete a two- or four-year degree program. In other words, we’re last in the nation in the race to achieve a higher education. ... However, there is one statistic where we are above the national average and well above our neighboring states. Idaho incarcerated 5 percent more people per 100,000 than the national average in 2009, according to government statistics. And that’s no small feat. America incarcerates more people on average than any other country in the world. Russia is ranked number two. ... Compared to our neighboring states, Idaho locks people up with a vengeance. Utah is 48 percent below the national average; Washington, 40 percent; Oregon, 16 percent; Montana, 17 percent; and Wyoming, 13 percent below. ... Being above the national curve in prisoners per hundred thousand says something about priorities. Between 1987 and 2007, the U.S. prison population tripled. Though our nation has but 5 percent of the world’s population, it locks up 25 percent of those behind bars. The resolve to keep one in 99 people locked up costs money.
Even though treatment has proven, time and again, to be cost effective, we still read statistics like this one:
A solid share of the responsibility for prison growth and costs has been given to the nation’s war on drugs and its stiff prison sentences. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, about 24 percent of all prisoners were convicted of drug-related charges. ... Idaho instituted a drug court program in 2001 to reduce offender recidivism through education and counseling. Working with a jail population where nearly 40 percent are high school dropouts, the program has enjoyed success. But, it receives a small part of the corrections funding pie. A study by the Pew Center shows the lion’s share of corrections funds, $8.70 out of every $10, goes to incarceration and prison financing in Idaho. ... Meeting expenses is killing investments. Keeping an Idaho prisoner behind bars costs the state 3.6 times more than educating one child. Although Idaho ranks 49th in per capita student spending, our legislature continues to cut funding for K-12 education. State support for Idaho colleges and universities has fallen 27 percent in the past two years.
One of my community college students, Shami Yakovac, wrote:
I can also tell you that Idaho puts people away for way too long on drug crimes. I spent 6 years on a possession charge. I needed help not prison but that chance was never offered. I spent time with people who had taken lives with manslaughter and child abuse or molestation. They ALL had a lot shorter sentence then I did. I honestly believe it was needless because now that I have had some rehabilitation and been given some tools, I'm fine. I begged for help 7 years ago and got nothing but a chance to waste the taxpayers money!
The Journal concludes:
It’s nice to encourage Idaho’s youth to “Go On.” It’s cruel if we don’t adequately fund something to go on to — besides prison.
For further study:
With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of those who are imprisoned. What does that say about American values? asks economist Loury. Those statistics suggest that the U.S. is a punitive society targeting its punishment disproportionately more often at the poor and racial minorities, stigmatizing huge segments of the population, Loury asserts. - from Booklist