WASHINGTON—With 82 gangs boasting 1,500 members that roam his suburbs, Gerald E. Connolly, the board chairman of Fairfax County, Va., was thrilled when President Bush announced last month a new $150 million program to reduce gang membership across the country.
But the thrill was gone when Connolly saw Bush's proposed $2.6 trillion 2006 federal budget a few days later, because it proposed to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to state and local programs that help troubled kids and anti-gang efforts.
"He's offering modest assistance on one hand, while proposing draconian reductions on the other hand in terms of intervention and prevention programs," said Connolly, a Democrat. "It's a good thing to have $150 million and it provides good public relations cover. But the only additional resources they're providing is $150 million over three years for the entire country?"
Many lawmakers and law enforcers say Bush's proposed spending cuts will have a devastating impact on needed programs at a time when youth gangs present a pervasive nationwide problem.
There are about 21,500 gangs nationwide with more than 731,500 members, according to a 2002 Justice Department study. The report also states that gang membership dropped by 14 percent between 1996 and 2002.
But many law enforcement experts say the Justice Department statistics are outdated. They say the numbers don't reflect a growing gang problem fueled by poverty; a return to the streets of older gang members released from prisons; a growing immigrant population; and the rise of foreign-based gangs such as El Salvador's Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13.
Bush spotlighted the problem in his State of the Union address, when he assigned his wife, first lady Laura Bush, to oversee his three-year, $150 million program. But then he unveiled those proposed budget cuts. Among them:
_ He would slash the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program from $499 million this year to $22 million in fiscal 2006. COPS gives local law enforcement agencies federal money to hire more police and improve their equipment.
_He would eliminate the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program, which provided $54 million this year to help prosecutors address gang, drug and violence problems.
_ He would cut more than $412 million from education, after-school, and family support programs that help kids stay away from gangs, according to Sanford A. Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a Washington-based coalition of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and crime victims.
"The unfortunate fact is we were making significant headway in controlling gang activity," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Boston's Northeastern University. "The cuts are unfortunate because gang activity has made a resurgence.
"What will $150 million buy you? Maybe $10 per kid," Fox said. "You look at the cost and devastation that gang violence brings and $150 million sounds like a token amount for something for Laura Bush to do. It's a feel-good thing."
White House officials say that the new program and the proposed budget cuts reflect a shifting of resources from methods that haven't worked to a new approach that highlights local programs that get results.
"A lot of the reductions in juvenile justice are in programs that are earmarked"—protected politically in Congress—"meaning you can't target revenues where the greatest needs are," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. "And it's time to try new approaches while gang involvement is growing."
Jim Brown, the former Cleveland Browns running back who's gained national recognition as an anti-gang activist, agrees at least in part.
"The bottom line is $150 million is not a lot of money for the problem we have," Brown said. "But I'm interested in solving the problem, and I'm happy the president and his wife have stepped out front. I'm encouraged that they're recognizing this as a pressing problem."
But critics fear Bush sees only the problem, not the necessary solution.
The National Association of Counties is so concerned about the proposed cuts that it dispatched its 2,000 county commissioners—in Washington for a meeting—to Capitol Hill to lobby on the issue.
And the Congressional Black Caucus recently accused Bush of hollow rhetoric about the gang problem.
"Surprisingly, the president's budget calls for the elimination of many important youth violence and gang prevention programs," Rep. Diane E. Watson, D-Calif., said in the caucus' weekly radio address last month.
In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Sgt. Beth Boggess is disturbed that her Gang Intelligence Unit may lose $39,000 in federal funding. The money helps a program that targets youths who are either in gangs or interested in getting out of them.
"We'll have to look for other grants to support the program," she said. "We're looking for funding from the city council, but that's up in the air."
David Kennedy, a criminologist at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Bush's proposed budget cuts would be felt nationwide. "I think it's really going to be felt at the local level," he said. "I think most states and jurisdictions will have a hard time making up for the lost money."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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