To squelch youth crime in Gilroy, community leaders are seeking input from residents about the types of crime juveniles are getting into in their neighborhoods, and what can be done about the problem.
The South Valley Youth Task Force, a nascent, multi-agency group focused on preventing juvenile criminal activity in Morgan Hill and Gilroy, held their second community meeting last Thursday at South Valley Middle School, where eastside families showed up to voice concerns about the crime they see teens engaging in day to day.
A group of about 60 residents were broken down into two smaller groups - an English-speaking group and a Spanish-speaking group - where they detailed to task force leaders the type of crime they see juveniles committing, and the type of help they'd like to see the City offer.
Alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine use in parks, graffiti and theft were some of the main problem areas that residents mentioned.
“I go for walks in the park, especially Christmas Hill Park, and I see young people there everyday, drinking and doing drugs,” said one man, an eastside resident in the English-speaking group.
The South Valley Youth Task Force is comprised of various agencies all over the county, including the police departments and school districts from Morgan Hill and Gilroy, the Sheriff's Department, Council members and staff from each city, Santa Clara County Judge Beth Gowen, and Steve Lowney, deputy district attorney.
Leading the meeting was City Administrator Tom Haglund, Police Chief Denise Turner, Debbie Flores, Gilroy Unified School District superintendent, and Councilman Dion Bracco.
After nearly 10 months of strategic planning meetings among task force members, the group has turned its face to the communities of Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin to hear from community members on what problems they should be honing in on.
The tone of the meeting was informal - people sat on fold-up chairs, engaging in a conversation with task force leaders about their concerns for their own children and other children in their neighborhood. A “no questions asked” and “confidentiality guaranteed” policy was implemented in regards to the attendees’ own legal standing to encourage an atmosphere of openness among the group.
The next meeting will be held in Morgan Hill at the end of October, although Haglund said a specific date has not been hammered out.
The meeting at SVMS was not as well-attended as the first meeting in Gilroy, which was held at Glenview Elementary on Sept. 13 and drew more than 100 people, according to Haglund.
Haglund attributed the second meeting's lower attendance to the fact that middle school parents aren't as involved as elementary school parents and are less likely to attend an evening meeting based on a flier their child brings home with them.
“So we're not going to stop there,” Haglund said.
The task force's next step is to go door-to-door on the eastside in the coming weeks, getting input from parents and residents about what services the City can offer their children to help tackle youth crime.
With 538 juvenile arrests and citations in 2011, Gilroy ranks No. 3 for the most juvenile crime in the county, outdone only by San Jose and Sunnyvale. Morgan Hill ranks No. 6 in the county with 272 juvenile arrests and citations in 2011.
With these numbers in mind, Gilroy leaders decided it was time to take action late last year.
“We can't arrest our way out of the problem,” Turner said. “We have got to focus on intervention and prevention.”
After several talks, the Gilroy City Council and the GPD decided that juvenile crime and gang membership are issues best handled at the regional level, so they invited Morgan Hill to the table as well.
“I think we recognize the issues that give rise to membership in gangs are not necessarily related to city boundaries, so this is something that cried out for a regional strategy,” Haglund said.
With the local school districts, representatives from the county court system, City officials, law enforcement and local nonprofits working together, the task force can combine resources and not “reinvent the wheel,” as Haglund put it.
The task force has turned the head of District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who attended a meeting several weeks ago to show support for the burgeoning group.
“I think these kinds of efforts will keep some kids out of the criminal justice system permanently, or at least for a significant period of time. Sometimes there is a stage where juveniles are most susceptible, and programs like these can be the bridge. Sometimes, if you can just get someone through 10th and 11th grade, they are going to be OK,” Rosen said.
The task force, which obtained a $250,000 state grant to get started, has also obtained about $25,000 from the following participating agencies: The City of Gilroy, the City of Morgan Hill, GUSD, MHUSD, Gilroy's Gang Task Force and Santa Clara County.
Part of the state grant went to hiring a part-time regional coordinator, Albert Balagso, who works from the GPD office to lead the task force, which includes coordinating the group’s events and communicating with the various agencies represented.
“Gangs are like a disease that doesn't go away. What you try to do is put it into remission and control it,” Balagso said. “You save some and you lose some. But for every one you save that is one more life going in the right direction. That’s what this task force is all about.”
Get connected to other locals, give us feedback on stories and tell us about community events, at www.gilroyvoices.com.