Planned cut to gang program assailed

Colleen Quinn, State House News Service
Apr. 26, 2012

A 64 percent cut to an anti-gang program in a House committee’s proposed state budget caught some lawmakers off-guard and has set off a flurry of efforts to restore funding.

The House Ways and Means Committee budget released last week recommends funding the so-called Sen. Charles E. Shannon Community Safety Initiative at $2 million, it’s lowest level since the start of the recent recession, and down from $5.5 million this fiscal year. The Ways and Means budget also wipes out a separate $10 million program, backed by the governor, aimed at combating youth violence.

Secretary of Public Safety Mary Beth Heffernan said she was “disappointed” with the proposed cuts to Shannon grants and it falls short of what is needed to fund youth anti-crime programs.

“It will be devastating to programs,” she said in a phone interview.

Lew Finfer, director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said losing millions of dollars in the FY’ 2013 budget will have a “devastating” effect on gang prevention efforts across the state.

“To go to $2 million is sort of hard to understand considering how successful these programs are. We are in hard budget times, but how many programs have gotten 75 percent cuts in this budget?” Finfer said, referring to Patrick’s $8 million recommendation for Shannon grants.

Finfer estimates about 40 percent of Shannon money goes to local police departments and district attorneys’ offices to fight violence, while the remainder is distributed among social service agencies that reach gang members and at-risk youth to prevent them from joining gangs.

“The street outreach workers can also reach them in other ways that a law enforcement agency couldn’t” Finfer said. “This would really devastate those kinds of efforts.”

Police who create anti-gang programs with Shannon grants said losing money would reverse a lot of the work done in the last few years.
In his annual budget proposal released in January, Gov. Deval Patrick recommended $8 million for the Shannon program, which directs grants to cities and towns to help coordinate anti-gang efforts. The program, named after late-Sen. Charles Shannon of Winchester, received $13 million in fiscal 2009 and was slashed to $4.5 million in fiscal 2010.

Heffernan said even during the toughest part of the economic downturn the Patrick administration backed funding the grants which are distributed among police departments, district attorneys’ offices and community service organizations around the state.

“That is because of the commitment we have to Shannon grants. They work. They are good,” Heffernan said.

Rep. Carlos Henriquez (D-Dorchester) said he has seen firsthand the difference anti-gang programs make in young people’s lives. A youth worker before he was elected state representative, Henriquez detailed the story of a young man he knows who was in a gang at 14 years old, carrying guns and selling drugs. With the help of programs like those funded by Shannon grants, he now attends Morehouse College in Atlanta, and every summer returns to Boston to work as a youth worker to help others escape gang violence.

“The Shannon grants are a great collaboration between local police departments, youth workers, community organizations, and young people,” Henriquez said.

Henriquez, a freshman representative who made his maiden speech on Shannon grants, said he was committed to fight for more funding. He filed a budget amendment seeking $8 million – the amount the governor sought in his proposed budget.

Asked about the cuts, House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey (D-Haverhill) told the News Service there were “a lot of difficult choices this year.”

“Certainly we do fund Shannon, not to the extent the governor proposed, but we do fund those grants,” Dempsey said. “There are areas of the budget we wish we could do more.”

Dempsey pointed out the House budget increased local aid funding “to make sure public safety in every city and town receives adequate funding.” Communities could use local aid money to continue Shannon programs, he said. The House budget guarantees $899 million in unrestricted aid to municipalities, including $65 million that Patrick only proposed returning in local aid if a surplus existed at the end of the current fiscal year.

“I think we wanted to make certain first and foremost we were investing in local aid for cities and towns,” Dempsey said.

Rep. Viriato DeMacedo (R-Plymouth), the ranking Republican member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Dempsey had an “unenviable job.”

“There are so many areas where the numbers are not up to where people would like,” DeMacedo said. “These are just difficult times.”

DeMacedo said he expects debate on the House floor about restoring funding to Shannon grants.

Although the governor has supported the program in recent years, he proposed eliminating it in 2007, his first year in office, and the move drew criticism from the program’s backers in the Legislature at the time. Lawmakers that year reinserted $11 million for the program during budget deliberations.

Worcester Police Sgt. John Lewis said cuts to Worcester’s share of Shannon grants would “breakdown” some of the relationships the police department has built with community service organizations and young people over the last six years. In Worcester, police launched mentoring programs with 11 churches around the city, getting kids off the streets by using the churches as recreational spaces. Officers run programs at the churches, creating relationships with young people at risk for gang activity.

“Having these churches as a safe haven was a way for us to decentralize our efforts,” Lewis said. “If one officer does not attend a church, those kids will be at a higher level of at-risk than they are now. They don’t have anyone they can trust, and they cannot be redirected into positive solutions. They will be doing this on their own.”

Other Shannon grant backers said they could not understand the proposed funding cut because of the program’s successes.
Other lawmakers said they are working to increase funding. The House starts debate on the budget next week.