A renewed push to repeal Oregon’s youth mandatory minimums law under Measure 11 emerged in January with a critical report by the Oregon Council on Civil Rights, a panel of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Passed by voters in 1994, Measure 11 took power away from judges with systematic requirements that kids under age 15 charged with certain violent crimes to be tried as adults. Today almost a quarter century after Measure 11’s passage, years of research has shown that criminalizing youth is expensive and fails to deter crime.
Before he left office, Gov. Ted Kulongoski suggested tinkering with Measure 11 to reduce the future cost of the prison system, and there have been a few changes over the years. But finding policy solutions to youth violence often seem out of reach.
But nobody knows youth violence prevention like Guillermo Cespedes does. A lifelong social worker appointed director of the Los Angeles Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development from 2009 to 2014, Cespedes used data, partnerships and strategy to help cut the gang violence rate there in half -- where it stayed for almost a decade. Now he uses the strategies he helped pioneer in the United States to help teenagers and families in other parts of the world.
The Skanner’s Lisa Loving spoke with Cespedes last month in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he helps lead Proponte Mas, a gang prevention program that also operates in other countries of Central America, the Caribbean and North Africa.
The Skanner News: One of the ground-breaking programs that you helped build was in Los Angeles, the GRYD program. What does the program do and what was your role there?
Guillermo Cespedes: The Los Angeles Gang Reduction and Youth Development office was put together in 2007. It is the only office of its kind in the United States that has a municipal budget, to address the gang violence problem using what some people referred to as the public health approach; in other words out of that budget, we did not pay the police, it was just for social programs and stuff like that. And the mayor brought me in to develop the strategy.
TSN: In the GRYD program, juveniles are sorted into different levels of risk. Can you describe how it works?
GC: I developed a strategy for the city that we used to refer to as the four-legged table. Which meant that in each target community there were some primary prevention projects, some secondary prevention projects, some tertiary prevention projects, and blended with that, law-enforcement. And those are the legs that constitute the table.
Overall the four-legged table in LA was comprised of about 16 different components, and we were pretty innovative and pretty successful – we’re going on nine consecutive years of seven indicators of gang violence including homicides, having been reduced significantly. (Homicides decreased by 20 percent, driven largely by a decline in gang-related deaths.)
Prior to that, we thought that youth at risk in every community were the same, and they got the same “medicine,” and the same interventions and all of that. So L.A. shifted a little bit away from the conventional narrative of those days that said -- poverty and unemployment and poor education and all of those things would create a gang member.
We worked with some of the top researchers in the world to commission the Youth Service Eligibility Tool, which has now become a key component to the work in Central America for Proponte Mas and in the Caribbean as well. It is a tool that basically identifies scientifically three levels of risk: the youth that are at the primary level of risk, the youth that are at a secondary level of risk, and the youth that are at a tertiary level of risk. And all of those things supposedly should help us then apply an approach, or a “medicine,” that is aligned with that level of risk.
That is what Proponte Mas is doing in Honduras and El Salvador; and St. Lucia, Guyana and Saint Kitts in the English speaking Caribbean.
TSN: What are the three levels of risk?
GC: Primary level is the youth in poor communities who will benefit from school and job development programs. Secondary level is the youth in those communities who is closest to the door -- he hasn’t fully absorbed the identity of gangs, he is flirting with that identity, he is very close to it. He is close to that door, but he hasn’t yet fully committed to that identity. That youth requires an individualized plan to prevent him from choosing that door.
And tertiary level is the youth who has already crossed into that world, we don’t know how deeply embedded he is in that identity. We may not know when he actually joined, we don’t know how committed he is, and we may not know the types of activities that he may or may not be involved in. But he does or she does identify themselves as a gang member.
So those are the three levels.
We use a medical analogy: Primary level, the treatment is diet and exercise; secondary level, it’s diet and exercise plus medication; and tertiary level is a bit more invasive medical care.
To create these risk levels, L.A. looked at factors like gang-related violence; how many youth are in foster care in the schools. In other words, we supported kids from families historically impacted by low levels of unemployment, high levels of poverty, and all the social ills that we historically think of as creating violence. The majority of youth of all high-risk communities -- including Honduras -- are at primary risk.
TSN: What do you think is the most important things people should know about gangs and how to stop gang violence?
GC: I think when people talk about best practices, I think what’s proven to be most effective requires a changing lens in the way that we look at the problem. And I think that change has to be from the lens of understanding the function of group identity for a gang. In other words, looking at gangs more broadly than just criminality. They serve a function. We may not like and certainly don’t approve of all the things that gangs do, but it has been proven that looking at them just through a criminal lens leads to arrests, it leads to oppression, and it leads to the idea that we can eliminate gangs – and I’m not sure that we will.
LA is an interesting example because, well -- it has more gang members and less violence. So that kind of puzzles people, but I think that changing paradigm in LA has basically decriminalized being a gang member. It is not against the law to be a gang member. It is against the law to commit crimes, but it is not against the law to be a gang member.
So apparently, of the 450 documented gangs in L.A., most of them, when they want to celebrate the anniversary of the gang, they will go down to Park and Recreation and take out a permit and will use the park to have a party and it’s legal. Or they will post information about the history of the gang, or they will dress in the colors of the gang, or they will refer to themselves by the name of the gang.
So I think the strategies developed in L.A. are important. More important is the fact that there was a paradigm shift that makes us look at those strategies through a different lens.