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Getting at root of gangs
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The public, it seems, has become much more intolerant and aware of the damaging effects gangs are having on our communities. This was brought to a head when a baby was seriously wounded during a drive-by shooting in Modesto, preceded by a rash of shootings in which a number of individuals were shot to death or wounded. Drive-by shootings in Stanislaus County during the last year numbered in the hundreds this past year. It is almost unthinkable that society has allowed the gang "cancer" to grow so rapidly and with such harmful effects. We can blame the government for "not protecting us," but frankly, gangs have been prospering because society at the broader level has been asleep.

Law enforcement takes these shootings very seriously, but their apparent randomness makes it more difficult to prevent than other kinds of crimes. Couple this with the gang's code of silence and distinct preference to retaliate on their own, and with the public's reluctance to "get involved," the problem has grown to a crisis.

I have heard law enforcement officials declare, "we cannot arrest our way out of this problem." They are correct, but I believe that the message may be subject to misinterpretation by those hearing it. To be clear, we are dealing with hardened, vicious criminals who have no respect for others or property. They live in a violent world of constant danger, where guns, drugs, and sex are plentiful. They live with no care for the laws or societal standards. That we can show gang members the virtues of living decent, productive and moral lives is beyond ridiculous.

Gangs exist because those who join them often suffer from low self-esteem, are undereducated, yearn for inclusion in a group, seek respect (without having to earn it), and have no future in society. So, when a gang offers a young prospect (who has no moral compass) immediate friendship, the feeling of inclusion, a party environment, the sense of power (by virtue of their numbers), sex, drugs, guns, cars and money, it becomes a temptation. Young people are also forced to join a gang because it dominates the neighborhood and rejection will lead to harassment, beatings and even death. Finally, popular culture glamorizes gangs by commercializing music and movies emphasizing violence, drug dealing for "big money" and the degradation of women.

Some in the news media have been quick to characterize policing efforts aimed at gang suppression as being racially inspired, which has the effect of polarizing the community and adding to the problems of victims and witness coming forward in connection with crimes. These kinds of distractions work in the gangs' favor by, in effect, creating two battlefronts for police. Not only are the police burdened with the danger of dealing with the gangs, they also have to expend valuable resources regaining public trust and countering adverse public opinion brought on by media spin. To be clear, the police focus on behavior, not physical characteristics.

Arrests alone will not solve the problem. However, arrests and crime mitigation are the only solution for those who are already fully immersed in the gang lifestyle. Even if they wanted to get out, most would face dire consequences, including death or harm to their families. In rare occasions when gang members want out, it is usually because they have become old, married or when they have had kids. Nevertheless, gangs are now so deeply entrenched within many communities, that it cannot be reversed through any form of community, governmental or other intervention.

Unfortunately, we will have to live with those who are already gang members until they reach old age or, through some miracle, get out on their own. This notion, of course, has enormous implications for society - one that I am sure the uninformed or naïve will dispute. We allowed this cancer to form, and like it or not, it will have to be dealt with through unprecedented law enforcement efforts, new laws and other rigorous means. We are just now only beginning to see the violence and problems created by gangs. Policing methods that may now seem extraordinary will, sometime in the next number of years, become the norm. If not, good citizens will be prisoners in their own homes, living in fear for their safety.

Neighborhoods already lost to gangs are not likely to be transformed into gang-free zones. Those who say it can be done through prevention and social programs are in denial. The only options we now have are to keep the cancer from spreading beyond the bounds of those neighborhoods into those that are currently gang-free.

• Parents need to pay attention to their kid's involvements and friends. When school officials inform parents that their kids are going down the wrong path, it is not time to complain about the teachers making false allegations. Teachers know what is up, and it is wise to listen to them. So many parents get defensive when their kids are accused of any wrongdoing. This happens frequently, as a result of any kind of contacts with authority, whether from teachers, neighbors or the police. Governmental authority must be recognized as existing for the common good, and while it makes mistakes, the vast majority of the time it does not.

• The "system" should not be so quick to persecute parents who attempt to properly discipline their kids. We have gone upsidedown when it comes to government interference with parental control. All a kid has to do is call the police to complain that their parents have disciplined them too much and the parents are on the defensive, often facing criminal charges and other governmental interference. Now is the time to get tough with raising kids so they are respectful and law-abiding.

• Gangs need to be denounced by all sectors of society as the scourge that they are. This should include commercial entertainment enterprises that now capitalize on the financial profits derived from gang-based rap and videos.

• It is also time for society to look at the role of illegal drugs in the gang milieu. Clearly, the gangs' financial existence is based on the fact that there is an underground market for illegal drugs. Illegal drugs are the lifeblood of criminal gangs. Recall the alcohol prohibition years of the 1920s; once the prohibition was lifted, life in this country calmed down a lot. The answer to the illegal drug situation is not an easy one to find, but clearly, the gangs would suffer if they lost their major funding source.

• The religious community also has the potential for a major role in reversing the destructive course we are now on. Midnight basketball and other 1990s-era platitudes will not solve the problem. Society has to set a clear line between right and wrong, with predictable consequences in terms of the law and community intolerance.

• Kids must be started at a young age to be gang aware and specifically taught about the destructive nature of gangs.

• The government must stop all financial subsidies of non-working individuals who are involved in gangs - taxes should never be used to contribute to the welfare of criminals, and there should be consistent use of the death penalty for those who commit violent crimes that end in the death or debilitation of others.

• The many years it now takes for a death sentence to be carried out should be shortened to a reasonable and fair period of time - not the 15 to 20 years it now takes to conclude these cases. Furthermore, prisons, as they now operate, are places that gang members are all too happy to be in, both from a comfort and bragging rights point of view. California state law and state prison policies have created a set of circumstances regarding inmates that other states are not forced to work under. These circumstances are a major contributing factor to the proliferation of gangs. Among these provisions, one is the segregation of inmates by their gang affiliation, which enables them to maintain cohesion, communications and allows them to conduct organized crime activities while serving time behind bars.

The minimum inmate comfort standards have created a prison environment that is excessively costly, and shuns labor programs. It creates a relatively comfortable environment for the prisoners to languish. California prisons should be as inhospitable as they are in most other states or countries. We can learn a lesson from the county jail system run by the sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, where inmates do their best to stay away.

I am acutely aware that my ideas will rankle some. I do not have all the answers - no one does, let alone does there seem to be the political will at the state and federal level to truly address the gang problem. Life here is on a course of permanent alteration for the worse. In addition, as violence increases, we will see a de facto loss of our individual liberties and the ability to move about and live life freely without fear of violence, injury, or property loss.