Critics say the way cities and states dealt with gangs 20 or more years ago greatly contributed to the recent surge in Central American kids crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, reports Stateline. In the past, cities like Los Angeles dealt with troublesome gang crime by trying to arrest the problem away, conducting massive sweeps and deporting gang members by the thousands back to Central America. Yesterday's policy has become today's problem, gang experts say. “Anybody hanging on the corner, tattoo guys, could be stopped, arrested photographed. But (police) were just squeezing the problem out, not resolving it,” said Luis Rodríguez, a former gang member turned journalist. “The gang problem has sources in poverty, of people being pushed out, social and economic barriers and discrimination. It's not just a problem of a bunch of bad kids and all that we have to do is punish them.”
Some municipalities are trying to change that arrest/deport approach. Los Angeles was the first to attempt to change that paradigm. In 2007, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa set aside $26 million in city, state and federal grants to create the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. The program instituted a “Summer Night Lights” program to keep kids off the streets and used interventionists, many former gang members, to mediate shootings and street wars. Two years ago, Los Angeles was awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to expand its program nationwide. Other cities and municipalities from Seattle to Montgomery County, Md., are experimenting with a variety of social services to prevent gang violence rather than trying to clean up after the fact. In Northern Virginia, where Central American gangs maintain an intense presence, government officials are trying therapy. Courts contract with the Multicultural Clinical Center, a private agency of licensed clinical social workers. Clinicians work with children, teens and adults to provide alternatives to gang life. The program is believed to be the first of its kind to use mental health practices as the primary tools to combat gang activity.