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Prevent Crime, Too

Writing not long ago for the Monitor's opinion pages, James Fox, a criminologist from Northeastern University, said, "No one can debate the need to punish juvenile offenders adequately. Yet the need to prevent juvenile crime and to invest in kids is equally real."

Prevention can take a number of forms. In an effort to prevent youth crime - and to restore a sense of calm to a community - a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles recently issued a temporary injunction against 18 members of the violence-prone 18th Street gang. The court order targeted only a few leaders out of the estimated thousands of 18th Street members in Southern California. It barred them from talking with each other in large groups, from using vulgar language, or from warning other gang members that the police are coming.

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The injunction - clearly a last resort - was steeped in controversy. Civil liberties groups said it denied gang members their rights without defining what they had done wrong.

The US Supreme Court disagrees. In June it upheld a similar injunction against 38 gang members in San Jose, Calif. Apparently the justices believed, as we do, that all residents of a community have rights that must be protected - the right of children to play safely outside, the right of people to leave their houses without feeling afraid, the right of store owners to run their businesses without intimidation.

Critics also question the effectiveness of civil injunctions such as these. But in the dozen or so California communities where gang members' activities have been restrained, officials report at least some reduction in gang-related crime - temporarily.

Clearly, a long-term solution is imperative. What's needed, as Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans told the Monitor earlier this year, is "cutting-edge enforcement programs ... but also an emphasis on prevention ... and working with young people."

That's the idea behind a number of Boston programs the Monitor has reported on - programs that appear to be working. There's the Dorchester Safe Neighborhood Initiative, based on cooperation between police, neighborhood groups, and probation officers. There's Operation Night Light, with probation officers pairing up with police to keep a close eye on juvenile probationers. And there's Boston's Ten Point Coalition, an alliance of black ministers whose goal is to form relationships with youths in trouble.

The philosophy seems simple: to be there for young people and to catch them before they fall. It's the badly needed prevention and investment criminologist Fox was referring to.

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