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City senses urgency on youth violence

Scholars, parents debate solutions

With the dramatic rise in shootings in Boston in recent years, the percentage of victims who are teenagers has skyrocketed, according to new statistics.

In the first four months of 2006, 45 percent of non fatal gunshot wound victims were under the age of 20 compared with 35 percent last year, 34 percent in 2004, and 20 percent in 2003, figures from the state Department of Public Health show.

The spike has alarmed community leaders and public officials and fueled a debate over how to most effectively combat the city's crime wave.

In recent weeks, officials have announced a flurry of expenditures aimed at quelling youth violence. Yesterday, Governor Mitt Romney announced he is giving $700,000 to faith-based and community organizations while he waits for an additional $3 million he asked the Legislature to approve last month.

In May, the city won a separate $3 million grant as part of a gang violence prevention bill, which passed the Legislature last fall. And last week, the Boston Foundation, along with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and other charities, announced $500,000 will go toward expanding youth programs over the summer.

But even as officials rush to fund programs, hoping to stop bloodshed in a summer that many fear will be the most violent in years, community leaders, police, and others involved in crime prevention are arguing about how the bulk of the money should be spent. Some say more of it should go toward youth programs that could steer young people away from lives of crime, while others say programs aimed directly at known offenders should be emphasized.

Most agree that both approaches have advantages and drawbacks. Funding for prevention programs aimed at youth ``reduces crime in the long run, and that's a goal people everywhere share; however, it doesn't do much to prevent crime in the short run," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Some youth violence specialists say those programs are the most effective way to fight crime.

``If you want to impact the life of a 17-, 18- or 20-year-old, you have to start when they're 10, 11, or 12," said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox . ``You can't take a kid already running with a gang and say, `Here's a program for you,' and expect him to say good bye to his buddies and sign up."

Boston, like many cities, is focusing on re entry programs for felons leaving prison because they are far more likely to commit crimes than average teenagers, Rosenfeld said.

One controversial program under consideration by Romney has been proposed by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, who wants to send ex-convicts and others who have what he calls street credibility to find and counsel people who are on a course to crime. News reports this week have been critical of Rivers because he once allegedly employed a man who was convicted this year of shooting at a Boston police officer in 2004.

Complicating the debate, some community leaders are also arguing that more money should be given to prevention efforts provided by community organizations rather than other efforts run by the city, particularly by police.

Jorge Martinez, the director of Project RIGHT, a Grove Hall non profit working on public safety issues, said too much of the $3 million gang violence prevention money awarded by the Legislature is being spent on policing and not enough on community organizing.

Police officials said the city is using much of the money on prevention, including social workers, programs offering high school equivalency degrees, and job training for high-risk youths.

``These are our kids," said Blake Norton, the director of public affairs and community programs at the Boston Police Department. ``Sixty-four percent of this is going back into the community to do work with high-risk individuals."

Advocates for increased youth spending say decreased federal funds to Boston have resulted in drastic cuts in police hiring and summer jobs for youths in recent years. Meanwhile, they say, there has been an explosion in the number of teenagers living in Boston, up to about 26,000 , the city's highest teen population in a decade.

An ongoing difficulty with youth programs -- both for scholars and for public officials trying to make decisions about funding them -- is the elusiveness of hard data to judge their effectiveness.

``It is very hard to measure them, and very hard to evaluate them," said David Hemenway of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com. Adrienne P. Samuels can be reached at asamuels@globe.com.

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