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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lots of answers, but no easy fixes

20080523__pn00juvi01ss_300 When Long Beach Police Sgt. Kevin Coy recently came across a 14-year-old girl riding in a car with a paroled gang member, her neck marbled in hickeys, he did what police officers are paid to do. He checked to see if any crimes had been committed - they hadn't - and let her go with a terse warning about the danger of her lifestyle.What Coy didn't do was drive the girl home, contact her mother, refer her to a social-service program or delve much deeper into her situation. Was she abusing drugs? Was she sexually active? Was she failing school? Could she have been helped? We may never know.

The story of this anonymous 14-year-old underscores the monumental need for individual attention, early intervention and a network of resources sorely lacking in Long Beach, according to a cadre of community advocates and others interviewed by the Press-Telegram. Without an organized system - and the funding to support it - the out-of-control train of juvenile crime here will almost certainly continue to blaze forward, they contend.

During a three-and-a-half-year period recently studied by the Press-Telegram, more than 10,000 Long Beach children were arrested or cited for crimes ranging from truancy and loitering to assault and armed robbery. More than a quarter of them were repeat offenders. Especially troubling, data shows, the number of annual juvenile arrests has remained relatively steady over the last 10 years, despite a downward trend nationwide.

In Long Beach and other urban centers, childhood problems often fall on the shoulders of police and schools, neither of which is fully equipped to deal with them, and neither of which should have to.

A report delivered to the City Council this month listed dozens of programs and agencies attempting to combat gang and youth crime here.

It may be unreasonable to hope the city will ever halt juvenile crime - especially given the state's budget crisis - but making a dent in the problem is achievable in the long term.

"It took quite a while until we got to this point," said Deputy City Manager Reginald Harrison, who helped generate the City Council report. "And it's going to take some time and investment before we can turn this ship around, so to speak." [Mark Godsey]

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