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Gang Funding in Question

Law enforcement officers ask Congress to reinstate $160 million for anti-gang and juvenile justice programs.

Loudoun County Sheriff Steve Simpson joined with sheriffs from Winchester and Clarke County on Tuesday to urge Congress not to cut $160 million from anti-gang and juvenile justice funds.

Congress is considering the 50 percent cut in anti-gang funding much like it did in 2004. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th), who is chairman of the Science-State-Justice-Commerce appropriations subcommittee, was one of the representatives who helped to get the funding reinstated last year, and law enforcement officials hope for the same outcome this year.

The proposed cuts could mean the end of a Loudoun County family program that works with troubled youths with repeat arrests and Girls, Inc., a model after-school program that works to prevent drug use.

Programs that target high-risk behavior are proven to reduce the chances of vulnerable teenagers joining gangs, according to a study by Fight Crime: Invest In Kids, an anti-crime organization of 2,500 law enforcement officers and citizens.

Loudoun County is home to 25 active gangs including Mara Salvatrucha, which has 2,500 members in the region.

"It's growing problem in this area and it's certainly something we need to pay attention to," Simpson said. "Arrests alone won't do it. Jails are only so big."

Recent years have seen an upsweep in gang activity such as graffiti in Loudoun as well as farther west counties like Clarke and Fauquier.

The key, Simpson said, it to catch teenagers before they enter a gang.

"Once young people get involved in gang activity, it's too late," he said.

Clarke County Sheriff Anthony Roper recalled an essay he'd seen from a high school student involved with a gang who projected a sense of hopelessness.

"I think it's very important to provide children with an option, a place to turn ... so they don't become criminals or victims of crime."

JUAN PACHECO is an employee of Barrios Unidos, a Northern Virginia anti-violence program. He first found Barrios Unidos as a young man in a gang with three felonies under his belt.

"We sometimes make the mistake of saying our youth is hopeless," Pacheco said. "The hope is just obscured."

Pacheco credits Barrios Unidos for turning his life around after he left jail because the organization helped him find a job.

"They looked at me as a young man who had potential, who could change," Pacheco said.

Collaborations between law enforcement and community organizations such as Barrios Unidos have helped reduce crime, according to Fight Crime: Invest In Kids' study.

In Boston, a collaborative effort that involved law enforcement, probation officers and street mentors called Operation Ceasefire caused youth homicides rates to plummet in the city.

Just a year after Operation Ceasefire was established in 1996, youth homicides in Boston dropped by two-thirds. A similar program in a Philadelphia police district resulted in youth homicides dropping by nearly half in the district.

Most youth criminal activity takes place in the after-school hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., when teenagers are mostly likely to be unsupervised. That's why programs like Girls, Inc. are so crucial to teenagers' success, and law enforcement urges the federal funding of these programs.

"This would have a devastating impact on our community," said David Kass, vice president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

"If we get the funding cut, there's a lot of young people that are going to suffer," Simpson said.