AP Photo/Mendocino County Sheriff's OfficeThis 2013 photo released by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office shows Jonathan Denver. Denver

AP Photo/Mendocino County Sheriff's OfficeThis 2013 photo released by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office shows Jonathan Denver. Denver

City is right to target mental health issues to curb crime

Breaking the cycle of crime and criminal behavior in hard-hit portions of the Bayview district will take more than old-fashioned law-and-order tactics. This is already evident with many of San Francisco's diversion programs that aim to steer people into restorative justice programs when possible. Now, through a $1 million grant from the federal government, The City has a prime opportunity to really get to the root of the issue, which includes mental health services for youths.

The money likely is going to flow into one pocket of the neighborhood: the 94124 ZIP code. Nearly one-quarter of the youths booked into Juvenile Hall live there, and the area also has one of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse.

The issues that lead to incarceration are myriad and complex, and reach deep into all communities. The District Attorney's Office said 70 percent of the black youths in the eastern part of the Bayview are in the criminal justice system by 17. Once in the system, they can fall into a cycle of incarceration and punishment if there is not intervention to right their paths.

The road a person takes to committing criminal acts can often start with a person being the victim of a crime or being in an environment in which he or she is surrounded by violence. It does not stray far from the psychological trauma — and even post-traumatic stress disorder — that affects soldiers in war zones.

In addition, when a young person does not have a strong family support network — such as lacking one or more parents due to incarceration or having a parent lack full familial participation because of addiction problems — the issues can multiply until it is too late for intervention.

San Francisco has long been at the forefront of diversion programs, including those for minor drug arrests. The idea is that solving the real issue — such as treating a mental illness or addiction problem — will help prevent further crimes down the line. The massive prison population in the United States and the high recidivism rates show that merely arresting people and locking them up does not solve the problem.

In the Bayview, breaking the chain of violence needs to start with youths. Critics of the program and the federal spending will surely say this is soft-on-crime liberalism that is throwing money away at social programs. But what the funds really will go toward is helping research what can be done outside of the money-wasting and ineffective punishment that has to be doled out once kids go astray.

Right now, violence in the area is a toxic weed that chokes off too many youths, who never have a chance to grow to their full potential. The City now has a new tool to prevent that from occurring.

editorialsGeorge GasconMalia CohenOpinionSan Francisco District Attorney's Office

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