Here is my latest column. It is on gangs and stems from a recent visit to a juvenile hall in LA County. Tell me what you believe are the solutions to the gang problem?
I sat nervously in a green, plastic chair, unsure of what to do with my hands. I ended up folding them in my lap.
Around me were 10 boys, all 15-years old, dressed in loose-fitting sweat pants without belts, sweat shirts with no zippers or buttons and sneakers with no shoelaces.The juvenile hall inmates were surprisingly animated, eager to talk to this weeks visiting group, even ready to solve my problems. I went there on a Sunday with a friend and his church group who listen to the inmates and spread Gods hope.
I have a question, I said. I know a kid your age in my community. He attends high school. But recently hes talking about joining a gang. He even has a gang tattoo on his arm. What should I say to him?
These kids, who know a thing or two about gang-banging, jumped at the chance to answer. Their advice was helpful, right-on, insightful.
You gotta separate your sons from him. Dont let them like go to the mall or hang out with him, warned one boy. You know, sometimes an innocent girl or boy can get shot … he said sincerely. His sentence trailed off, but the care in his voice remained.
Try doing some things with him. Like, take him to a Dodger game or to the movies. Get him to do other things … good things, he suggested.
The conversation went on for an hour. They spoke about what they did that landed them in juvenile hall and about how they felt about being locked up.
This reporter is hardly naive about crime. But as I spoke to them, I saw them as fellow human beings not society castoffs. Could they get it together someday with a little help?
It hit me later on that perhaps we are attacking the gang problem in this county backward. Sure, more cops and more enforcement will help. But why dont we put more money, more time and more resources into rehabilitation and prevention.
ot every one of these kids will be rehabilitated. In fact, the odds are stacked against them. But they deserve a second or third chance. If for no other reason than protecting ourselves, rehabilitation and job training are effective tools for preventing todays juvenile inmates from committing new crimes when they get out.
Im not talking politics. Im talking common sense. Most crimes are committed by ex-cons. Often, time makes them harder criminals. This problem needs to be addressed. Yes, it would be a huge undertaking. But our states youth institution policies must go beyond locking them up and hoping they dont get out. Because that doesnt work.
What does work for juveniles is tough love and a helping hand (i.e. a job). Thats something that Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries/Jobs for a Future, has been doing for nearly 20 years. Boyle celebrated Mass that morning inside the halls gymnasium and spoke to the inmates about seeing the potential within themselves.
Boyles homily centered on Jesus call to his apostles, who were not having luck catching fish. When Jesus said cast your nets elsewhere, they did so and pulled in a boatload of fish.When others doubt, trust that God can tap that potential thats inside you. Remember, boatloads of fish. You, too, have boatloads of potential, he preached.
Boyles ministry is centered on a simple philosophy: Nothing stops a bullet better than a job. Teens that joined gangs in Boyle Heights were way too idle; having a job gave them purpose and filled up time.
Which brought me back to the most chatty member of our Sunday morning circle. Ill call him Jay. He was at the El Monte house of a friend who had a shotgun. They took the gun and stole a car and drove it into L.A., where the LAPD Hollenbeck Division pulled them over. It was a miracle Jay was alive, since he resisted arrest he ran. All because, he says, he had nothing else to do. He said he wanted to come back to juvenile hall.
Why did you join a gang? I asked them.
Jays response was genuine: Theres no greater feeling when you see your homeboys, and they are like, Hey, how ya doing? he said.
The others in the circle nodded in agreement. It is that feeling of being loved, being respected, that they thrive on. When they get it, it is like a drug-induced high. Its what keeps them coming back.
One final story. Boyle took two Homeboy workers to a small town in South Dakota where he spoke. The local newspaper did a story on the young men and ran it on the front page. The newspaper was slipped under their hotel room door and they read it, even took it onto the airplane.
Father Boyle looked over at the young man seated next to him who was re-reading the story and had started to cry. Boyle asked what was the matter.Nothing, he said. When I read this, I feel like I am somebody.