LOS ANGELES – A $1.6 billion congressional bailout of sorts could help financially flailing groups that fight to keep young people out of trouble, yet lawmakers are reluctant to take up the expensive proposal amid a sour economy and other, more pressing issues.
The Youth Promise Act would dole out money to organizations like Homeboy Industries, a gang rehabilitation center founded in 2001 under the motto "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." The group's founder Father Greg Boyle recently had to lay off more than 300 of his 427 workers, most of them former gang members, when expected revenues plummeted.
His organization isn't the only one suffering. The recession has hit other nonprofits across the country hard and left some wondering how they will survive.
"It would be a lifeline for us and a lifeline for many other organizations," Omar Jahwar, founder of and chief executive of Dallas-based Vision Regeneration, said of the Youth Promise Act. His group works to prevent youth violence in Dallas County.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who authored the bill, said the tough-on-crime rhetoric that politicians campaign on has proven ineffective. He faulted slogan-driven crime initiatives, such as the "three strikes and you're out" law, which create lengthy and expensive sentencing requirements.
Scott's bill currently has 235 co-sponsors in the U.S. House but only 14 in the Senate. Scott does not know if it will get approved this session, in part because it is also competing with another crime bill he opposes, proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. That bill would create a string of new criminal offenses and enhanced penalties for gang members.
Scott and Feinstein are negotiating over whether the bills could be combined.
But another bailout bill will be a tough sell, especially among Republicans.
"We cannot afford to throw more money toward another expensive government program at a time when our citizens are burdened with higher and higher federal debt," said Tracy Hancock, president of Texas-based Golden Corridor Republican Women.
But for Scott, the cost pales in comparison to how much is already spent on punishing young criminals.
In Los Angeles County, it costs $140,000 a year to keep a minor in juvenile hall.
"It's totally counterproductive," Scott said. "If you put a small portion of that money into prevention and early intervention, you would have a much better result."
The Youth Promise Act would distribute money to organizations that form a panel and can show their programs are effective. A city official would be on the panel along with law enforcement agencies, which would also be eligible for funding of their own crime prevention and gang intervention programs.
David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst with conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said youth crime prevention should be left to state and local governments.
A central provision of the bill is that the programs getting funding must be replicated from programs that have been proven to work.
"These programs almost always fail when replicated in other jurisdictions," Muhlhausen said.
Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services in Chicago, said his nonprofit has seen revenues decline by about 15 percent and he's had to cut 15 workers from the payroll. He has encouraged one of his senators to support the Youth Promise Act.
"It is a piece of legislation that will help us," said Velasquez, whose group provides counseling to at-risk young people. "We have to seriously reinvest in our young people and this one of the mechanisms to do that."
At Homeboy Industries, Boyle employs former gang members to work in the center's bakery, restaurant or T-shirt press. However, workers in these businesses were largely insulated from recent cuts.
Most of those laid off were getting paid simply to attend training and carry out maintenance and administrative work at the center's downtown headquarters.
For many, it was the only place hiring.
"I never got a call back," said former gang member Robert Trejo, reflecting on his dozens of attempts to get hired elsewhere.
He was fired as a receptionist in May. After applying without success to 50 jobs, the 23-year-old father of three was left wondering if he had any choice but to return to the street.
"I think I will probably go back to the life, it's the only thing I know," Trejo said. "It's so easy making money. I can make $15-$500 in an hour or two (selling drugs) or robbing."
Trejo was eventually rehired, thanks to a flurry of donations after Boyle carried out a publicity blitz, but how many workers Homeboy can hire back without the Youth Promise money remains in question.
"We can't just rail at the fact that they are in a gang," Boyle said. "We have to also offer them an opportunity to get off this crazy freeway, and that is the part the Youth Promise Act hopes to put out there."