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Report: Early Intervention Key To Keeping San Diego County Kids Out Of Gangs

Ramped up preventative efforts and early interventions are needed to bring down the number of San Diego County youths joining gangs because parental disapproval alone may not be enough, according to a report released Monday by the San Diego Association of Governments.

Crime is at a record low in San Diego County, but a report out Monday shows gang affiliation is holding steady.

The San Diego Association of Governments surveyed individuals booked into county jail last year and found a quarter of adult arrestees were currently or previously affiliated with a gang, and 43 percent of arrested youth were affiliated.

That's an increase for adults and a slight decrease for youth when compared to 2008 when the county started the survey. Lead researcher Cynthia Burke says more work needs to be done to provide alternatives to gang-involved youth.

"Many of the youth do want to get, or they see themselves getting out, and how do you help that transition from a criminally-affiliated lifestyle to not? And I think that there's still a gap in those services," Burke said. "I think stakeholders are aware of this, but sometimes there's competing priorities and there might be limited resources to do everything we want to do."

Photo by Jorge Contreras

A chart shows the percentage of adults and juveniles who reported being affiliated with gangs in 2008, 2012 and 2014.


Report: Gang Involvement Among San Diego County Arrestees

Report: Gang Involvement Among San Diego County Arrestees

Gang Involvement Among San Diego County Arrestees: 2014 Data from the SANDAG Substance Abuse Monitoring Program

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The report says ramped up preventative efforts and early interventions are important because parental disapproval alone may not be enough.

One in three surveyed told researchers their families didn't care or were in favor of their gang involvement. More than half felt that their neighborhood or other youth in the community were neutral or were in favor of their affiliation.

But educational efforts early on for both kids and parents can be effective to counter gang influence. That's why the city of Vista in 2013 began doing intervention work as early as elementary school. San Diego's Gang Commission presented a similar approach to City Council last fall. Both jurisdictions support a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention and suppression. The commission currently exploring adding to the city payroll former gang members to help police reach those already steeped in gang culture.

Burke said the issue is important to address because, even though crime is down, gangs account for a disproportionate share of criminal activity in the county.

"Our interviews are consistent with what other research has shown — many youth join gangs because it offers them support, and they end up being more likely to engage in criminal activity with these peers," Burke said.

Around half of those surveyed said they had committed gang-related robberies, about the same amount stole cars, and a quarter were involved in pimping, according to the report. About 60 percent admitted to carrying a gun.

Gang involvement often starts around 13 years old and is heavily influenced by peers. About 58 percent began hanging out with gang members because their friends belonged, and 44 percent said they joined because of involvement within their family. About 18 percent said their parents were in a gang.

Gang Documentation

An individual may be documented as a gang member in San Diego if a law enforcement officer has observed three of the following criteria: the individual has admitted to being a gang member, has been arrested for a typical gang crime, has been identified as a gang member by an informant, is seen affiliating with gang members, displays gang signs, frequents gang areas, wears gang dress or has gang tattoos.

In addition to confirming the need for gang prevention and intervention, the report also touched on a concern raised in the community in recent years. About a quarter of interviewees were documented but did not self-identify as gang members.

Residents have complained the criteria for documenting gang members is too broad. Individuals documented as gang members are subject to harsher charges and sentences.

Burke said more research would need to be done to determine if authorities are wrongfully documenting individuals. San Diego Police have said they're very careful not to misuse gang documentation.

"It's a complicated issue because we know peers can be closely tied to one's criminal activity. I was talking with one individual who said, 'How can you expect me to stop hanging out with my friends because they're in the gang? I'm not going to commit crimes with them, but they're my peer group from childhood,'" Burke said. "So how do we bolster alternatives while being cognizant of the neighborhood and that these are people they've known forever?"

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