Panel offers ideas on urban violence

Access to substance abuse treatment for all regardless of income, mandatory K-12 bullying and violence prevention programs, and aggressive steps to reduce access to illegal firearms are among the anti-urban violence recommendations released last Thursday by the governor's Anti-Crime Council.

Other recommendations include immediate steps to offer reentry supports to violent offenders, job training for individuals between 14 and 22 years old, and the establishment of ways to immediately respond to and treat children who witness violence.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who chaired the council subcommittee that issued the report, called for specifically focusing on individuals between 5 and 10 years old with school truancy, after-school and day care programs. She said those programs would help identify "that group of kids across the Commonwealth who in five years or ten years will be a crime increase if we don't deal with it now."

Coakley acknowledged the wobbly economy, a $1.4 billion budget gap that Beacon Hill is wrestling with, and predictions that a longer economic downturn might require more spending cuts.

"It's a huge task but this huge challenge gives us an opportunity here, I think, to start to look with the governor, with [the Executive Office of Administration and Finance], around where do we spend our prevention dollars now, are we focusing them effectively and how we can do that better," she said. "And I think the governor agrees, these recommendations give us a good, sound basis to start looking at how we actually have to cut the budget."

Programs based in Dorchester that the 47-page report noted for their effectiveness include BOLD (Breath of Life: Dorchester) Teens, which focuses on youths 14 to 18 years old working on education, activism and peer mentoring; Dotwell, which offers basketball and soccer leagues for girls in the summer; summer activities through the Federated Dorchester Neighborhood House; Uphams Corner Health new violence prevention program; and Boston Police Department's Safe Streets program, with officers walking beats in the city, including Codman Square and the Bowdoin/Geneva area.

Asked whether the state can afford to expand some of the programs, as the report recommends, James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor said, "It has to afford it. We have a tremendous concern about the number of at-risk kids who are poorly supervised."

Gangs harbor a "tremendous attraction" to them, said Fox, who wrote the foreword for the report. "The social and economic cost of doing nothing is exorbitant. Prevention is a lot cheaper than the justice system."

Many of the ideas have been aired before in the halls and hearing rooms of the State House. Patrick said the report's recommendations can form a "very thorough" package for the 2009-2010 legislative session.

Patrick added administration officials are "not starting from scratch." "There are tens of millions of dollars now invested in prevention, intervention and rehabilitation initiatives in a whole host of areas," he said. "The question is how do we make data-based decisions. In other words, so that we're spending on what works and not spending on what doesn't. And how do we have… the patience to have the results of prevention reveal themselves."

Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke said the administration is still debating whether to re-file legislation reducing the availability of unlawful firearms, developing mandatory post-release supervision and sharing information among responsible agencies on at-risk juveniles.

The council subcommittee also calls on policymakers to establish violence prevention councils in every community and to "sustain and amplify" promising law enforcement initiatives.

"The kinds of programs that don't work that are the ones that are either ill-conceived to begin with or don't have enough support to be sustained," Coakley said. "That's where one of the recommendations says every community should have an across the board violence council that starts to look at how dollars spent and how effective they are in that community."

Fox said he was "very confident" the report's recommendations would be implemented because of the subcommittee's roster of officials like Coakley and co-chair Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett and other education and public safety policymakers.

"It wasn't a bunch of academics writing a report for a government agency," he said. "They're going to ignore themselves?"

A copy of the report is available at www.mass.gov/ag.