Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taking a fresh approach on gangs

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Making good on last year’s campaign-trail pledges, Montgomery’s county executive and top prosecutor lifted the curtain on a fresh approach to combating gang activity last week.

State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy will be assigning five prosecutors with special training on dealing with gangs to a unit in his recently reorganized office, using about $122,000 in additional funds approved in the county budget to add two prosecutors.

As part of an ‘‘all-crimes approach” strategy, McCarthy explained his deputies will get involved sooner with police investigations and track all crimes by a gang member, regardless of whether they are linked to traditional gang activity.

Getting a handle on the number of active gang members at any given time has proved difficult although 169 known gang members have faced prosecution this year, more than twice the 77 who were prosecuted in all of 2006. In the context of overall crime in the county, it is safe to say that gang crime remains low in Montgomery; spray-painted gang ‘‘tags” are the most obvious signs for many that there is any level of activity.

Aggressive prosecution — combined with appropriate punishment after a conviction from a responsive judicial system — can only go so far.

Central to efforts to keep youths and young adults from joining gangs will be better coordination of support programs and information-sharing, within legal bounds, between public schools, the police, counseling agencies, courts and families. In schools, education can’t begin soon enough. Some specialists have said gang initiation is seen in middle school, grades six through eight.

A 2004 task force that examined gang issues in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties found a patchwork of programs and services, leading to recommendations such as detailing more police officers to public schools, expanding relevant after-school and weekend organized programs for at-risk youths and stepping up public education campaigns.

Some of the group’s recommendations have been adopted and others, including several advanced last week, are still being woven into a consistent approach. They range from organized after-school activities to a Graffiti Eradication Team that was formed earlier this year in an upcounty police district to wipe away gang tags and other scrawling as quickly as possible.

There is a degree of skepticism about whether this new push is necessary, now or ever, and there is danger in labeling certain areas of the county as hotbeds of gang activity or certain kids as more likely to join a gang. McCarthy cautioned that the increase in prosecutions is more indicative of better cooperation and information exchanges between authorities rather than an indicator of a wholesale jump in gang membership or violence.

Also vital to the success of any anti-gang initiative is a close, productive working relationship with authorities in neighboring jurisdictions and with federal prosecutors, who have successfully won convictions against more than two dozen members of the notorious MS-13 gang, responsible for a series of high-profile killings and attacks in suburban Washington.

In all gang-fighting programs, the emphasis ideally should be on prevention — keeping youths from joining gangs in the first place and helping others break free from their insidious grip. Swifter, consistent prosecution also will help send a message that violence won’t be tolerated.