Federal funding for anti-gang efforts drying up

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Local,DC,Aubrey Whelan

Concerted efforts to eradicate street gangs in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland have succeeded in reducing gang activity and crime since 2003, but those programs are now threatened by a loss of federal funding.

The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force alone spends about $30,000 a month on gang prevention -- initiatives that target kids who haven't yet joined gangs and at-risk students who already have -- and reduced gang activity by 34 percent.

But that program, like others in the region, has been getting most of its federal funding under a congressional earmark, a funding mechanism that allows local congressmen to skirt funding competitions within federal agencies. Denounced as wasteful pork-barrel spending, earmarks have been abolished by Congress. Mayberry-esque jurisdictions like Arlington and Fairfax County will now have to compete for funding against large cities with much more serious crime problems like Baltimore and Chicago.

"The most recent grant we applied for was a violence reduction grant for $750,000," said Ray Colgan, the director of NVGTF. "While we do have gun crimes, we do have gang crimes, compared to populations of 2 million or 6 million, we can't compete with them when it comes to the amount of crimes."

Funds for the Virginia program will dry up at the end of June, and officials are scrambling to find money to keep it going.

"We've had positive outcomes from this program -- our referral services are doing a good job at identifying kids and getting them services," said Tito Vilchez, NVGTF's coordinator. "Now we're seeing this program may go away, and we're trying our best to keep it going."

While funding will likey be found for task force law enforcement initiatives, Colgan said simply arresting gang members isn't enough to prevent gang violence. Prevention programs are needed, too, but will have a harder time attracting increasingly scarce federal money.

"You can't arrest your way out of this problem," he said. "It's got to be prevention and intervention."

In Maryland, Montgomery County officials worry about their ability to prosecute gang members. The prosecutor's office has until October to find a way to pay three gang investigators once federal funding dries up, according to a county memo. Those investigators, the county says, screen potential gang members, locate witnesses for gang members' trials and keep track of the area's gangs.

"The loss of these positions would significantly impair the [State Attorney's Office's] Gang Prosecution Unit's ability to prosecute cases," county legislative assistant Susan Farag wrote in the memo.

awhelan@washingtonexaminer.com

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