As a long-time resident and advocate for the aging parts of Lodi, I am stunned by the number of gang members who live in Lodi. Since 1993, the Improvement Committee has worked diligently to understand, educate and eradicate gang activity on the Eastside and throughout the city of Lodi, yet 20 years later, the problem has grown tremendously.
I sit on my porch, located across the street from the first gang homicide in 2011, on the corner of Elm and Garfield, watching all the families, gang members, children and farmworkers co-existing in Lodi's Eastside. I speak with young people as they walk by, trying to engage them and find out what they need from city leaders and how can we help. As a city leader, I want desperately to understand why our neighborhood sounds like a war zone some days.
A week ago I chatted with three young boys carrying sticks and steel rods. I asked them how it was going and their only response was, "How come we got so many cops around here?" I let them know that the city cared about them and the police were there to keep them safe.
A few days later I saw the same boys and they came to me to ask for help with tickets they received for not wearing helmets while on their bicycles. I spoke with the chief, Mark Helms, and together, we encouraged them to tell their parents and do what the city asked of them. I asked if they had thought about what they needed, and their answer was summer jobs to keep them out of trouble.
My guess is these young men have already "jumped in," or will soon, based on the company I see they are keeping. I am concerned about their future, and if I could save just one, I would feel like I had accomplished something.
So what should Lodi do about gangs?
From parents to neighbors, teachers to local businesses, we all have a role in fighting the expanding gang presence in our beautiful city.
It is only through changes in parental involvement, employment opportunities, schools and other institutions at the community level that gang-related problems can ultimately be solved.
Gangs would not exist if they did not satisfy, in very anti-social and destructive ways, the desperate need young people have for protection, a sense of empowerment and group membership, mentoring and employment.
We need to listen to what kids themselves have to say about the issue to truly understand why a teenager would contemplate joining a gang. They are actually living the experience, while we adults are only hearing about it.
Lodi must also invest in proven, evidence-based youth organizations that are helping young people resist the life choices that lead to involvement in gangs.
Dr. Mark Cohen of Vanderbilt University and Dr. Alex Piquero of the City University of New York have done extensive research on the monetary value of diverting a high-risk child from a life of crime, substance abuse or school failure. Taking into consideration the lifetime costs associated with a career criminal, drug abuser or high school dropout, Cohen and Piquero estimate the monetary value of saving one high-risk youth at $3.2 million to $5.7 million for a career criminal, $1.15 million to $1.3 million for a drug abuser, and $675,000 to $1 million for a high school dropout.
Pay now or pay later.
Lodi leaders need to respond to gangs as if they are poisonous to the welfare and safety of all members of the community — because they are.
As I learned with the Lodi Improvement Committee, neighborhood residents need to organize to reduce conditions that lead to gang activity. They can provide the police with information that will assist them as they focus on removing highly problematic gang members. The city can provide well-lit, clean streets, and work with code inspectors to keep all properties in good condition.
Parents must become invested in keeping their children away from the gang lifestyle by paying attention to who their friends are, where they are at all times and keeping them busy with sports, clubs or jobs.
Neighbors can provide their youths with afterschool and summer activities, create a Neighborhood Watch program that works and have regular neighborhood cleanups.
Businesses have a vested interest in keeping the community they serve free of gang activity. They can bring students into the workplace to provide them with a realistic look at the world of work and the promise it holds for students in the future. They can offer internships, job training and placement services. They can provide scholarships to ninth-graders to give them a reason to stay in school and graduate. They can adopt a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop and provide funds for less advantaged kids so they can join in Scouting activities. The possibilities are limitless.
The city needs your help. I know the problems seem insurmountable, but together, we can save the life of a young person before they "jump in" and we lose them to a life of gangs forever.
Mayor JoAnne Mounce has served on the Lodi City Council since 2004.