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What’s Behind San Diego’s Gang Problem?

Local street gangs are growing and getting harder to police, according to officials from nine out of 11 law enforcement agencies who spoke to SANDAG for a study released this week.

Aired 12/7/13 on KPBS News.

Local law enforcement say gangs have gotten worse in the last five years. Officers say it's due to prison realignment. Researchers say San Diego is behind the gang deterrence curve.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

A possible reason, they said, is the state's prison realignment effort, which shortens sentences for low-level offenders and relies more heavily on local jails and probationers. The hammer of incarceration just isn't as intimidating these days.

But San Diego State University gang researcher Dana Nurge said "the verdict's still out" on realignment's effect.

"I think we need to keep an eye on it and see whether these perceptions are actually true," said Nurge, who wasn't involved with the SANDAG study.

The report looks at surveys on gang activity completed by juveniles and adults who were arrested in 2012. The study authors also talked to law enforcement agencies about how gang activity has changed.

Nurge and the study authors suggest local jurisdictions should pay immediate attention to proven causes and deterrents for gang activity. Young teens – of an average age of 13.5, according to the study – join gangs for a sense of belonging. They'll often choose a different path if someone intervenes early on.

But the numbers show the city of San Diego is behind the curve when it comes to institutionalizing early intervention. City reports show new gang members consistently outnumber those leaving gangs. Nearly half of SANDAG's survey respondents said they wouldn't know where to go if they needed help getting out of a gang.

"I would argue that San Diego definitely doesn't have enough street outreach. We don't have any organized system of it," Nurge said.

She's refers to strategies embraced by the mayor's offices in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland. Those cities employ former gang members who entrench themselves in neighborhoods to mentor youth and counsel their parents full time.

"So maybe it's getting a kid who's not in school and getting him back in school — helping the parent and the kid do the paperwork," Nurge said. "It might be connecting an older gang member who wants to get out with a job. It might just be helping the family get their basic needs met for food."

In San Diego, much of the work is done through an informal web of churches and nonprofits. The city has a gang commission that advises City Council on gang policy, but it's volunteer-based and lacks a budget.

"I think it would take support from the mayor's office more than anything, and just a recognition that this kind of approach is effective and necessary," Nurge said.

The San Diego Police Department did not respond in time to confirm whether it's one of the nine local law enforcement agencies witnessing increased gang activity. Violent and overall crime through October are down from last year.

But SANDAG's study suggests all jurisdictions aren't nudging people out of gangs as early as they should. The majority of participants said they got out of the lifestyle because they got older. The average age of gang-affiliated respondents was 30.

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