Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposes spending $11.5 million on Long Island to thwart gang recruitment by expanding after-school programs, vocational training and education efforts.
The goal, officials said, is to give vulnerable youths in hard-hit communities the tools they need to resist the lure of street gangs like MS-13.
The proposal, to be included in Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State address on Jan. 3, approaches gang violence from a community-engagement angle instead of being strictly focused on law enforcement.
The plan would build on previous efforts to beef up policing in gang-plagued communities with prevention-based initiatives, officials said.
MS-13, an international gang that gained notoriety in recent years, is the intended target of the program. Cuomo’s office said the gang is responsible for an uptick in violent crime in Suffolk County, and authorities previously said they have linked 11 killings in Brentwood and Central Islip in the past 15 months to MS-13.
“The key to our comprehensive plan to change that is to target gang activity by attacking the root cause — youth recruitment — through programs and outreach to protect vulnerable students,” Cuomo said in a statement.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone backs the governor’s plan.
“The expansion of these services are sorely needed to empower at-risk youth, keep them active in programming and provide a foundation for making healthy choices,” Bellone said in a statement.
The plan would:
- Expand after-school programs on Long Island with $2 million more in state funding for the Empire State After School Program. Eligible schools and nonprofits in at-risk areas can apply for funds to run arts, sports and other educational programs. In 2017, only the Uniondale and Hempstead school districts were funded, but the added money would allow more schools to join the list. School districts interested in applying must meet certain state child poverty benchmarks.
- Boost job and vocational assistance for youths with a $5 million investment in training programs and vouchers through the New York Youth Jobs Program. Companies that hire at-risk youths between the ages of 16 and 24 would receive tax incentives.
- Spend $1.5 million over three years on locally run anti-gang education programs for middle and high school students.
- Fund $3 million in social services over three years for at-risk youth, with an emphasis on unaccompanied immigrants. The services would include medical and mental health support, addiction treatment, counseling and language skills training.
- Create a Community Assistance Team, comprising six state troopers, three investigators, one senior investigator and one supervisor, to work with local officials and community leaders to “identify and engage gang activity hot spots.”
The funding plan must be approved by lawmakers and included in the budget, but Cuomo’s office is hopeful that the initiatives can be launched as early as spring.
Jennifer Hernandez, executive director of Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island, a Bohemia nonprofit that supports abuse and trauma survivors, said her organization provided advance feedback to the governor’s office.
Hernandez said there is a lack of accessible resources for vulnerable youths who want to get out of gangs or resist recruiters.
“Law enforcement has to play its part, but we feel more comprehensive community-based solutions are much better,” she said. “ . . . With MS-13, no one feels comfortable coming forward and saying ‘I’m undocumented, I need help.’ ”
Hernandez said she is eager to see more funding come to the region, especially for teens seeking job training.
“We have to give them the resources to move and to get out — that’s just not available right now,” she said.
Officials in Cuomo’s office said they were encouraged by successful gang-prevention programs in other states. Recent research in Virginia and California found similar programs, especially when targeted at 11- to 15-year-olds, reduced gang recruitment, school disruptions and crime.
Sergio Argueta, a community activist in the Uniondale area and founder of STRONG Youth, called the governor’s plan “an excellent laundry list” of programs.
But Argueta is concerned about potential gaps. Some youths most at risk for gang recruitment are less likely to be attending school and would miss school-based programs, he said.
Other kids may also get left out, he noted, because their undocumented status limits their job prospects or they aren’t able to follow a traditional school path. He would like to see more comprehensive alternative GED programs included in the plan.
In September, Cuomo announced that state troopers would be deployed to 10 of the “highest-risk” schools in Suffolk to stop gangs from recruiting students. Marking the anniversary of the slayings of Brentwood teens Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, by MS-13 members, Cuomo said the Gang Prevention Unit would educate teachers on how to identify early signs of gang activity and serve as a resource for students and parents seeking help.