MERCED — Tackling Merced County's growing gang problem wasn't on the Board of Supervisor's meeting agenda, but on Tuesday, it became a top priority.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II aired the topic during the meeting's public comment session, addressing a suspected gang-related shooting on Saturday that left three people dead.
"Merced County cannot flourish or grow economically if people don't feel safe," Morse said, adding that it's "unacceptable" for three people to be killed at a party.
While Morse acknowledged we "may never fully eradicate" the county's gang problem, he highlighted a few short- and long-term plans to curb the violence.
In the short term, Morse said he wants to increase gang intelligence, including sources and informants, and this can be accomplished through task forces.
Chairwoman and District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said gang task forces have waned over the years because of budget cuts, but noted good intelligence is important for prosecuting gang members.
"He (Morse) wants to be able to have access and information to understand what's going on within the gang community," she said. "I think he's looking for a larger collaborative effort."
Kelsey said she's interested in finding out the costs of prosecuting gang members, as well as public defender and incarceration costs. She said a portion of that money can be used for intervention, prevention and education programs.
"Those are dollars that might be better spent on getting involved with the community and trying to put together diversion programs," Kelsey said. "We would be using the same dollars, maybe not quite as expensive, but it would result in a better outcome."
Morse said the district attorney's office last year prosecuted and sentenced 80 gang members to prisons.
The board wants to examine associated costs for each gang member, Kelsey said. By doing so, she hopes to find ways to fund more prevention programs.
"For the last 15 years, I've wanted to put programs in place and I've always been told there isn't enough money," she said. "So I think the board is interested in finding out how much of general fund dollars are being spent on rehabilitation and incarceration."
The long-term plan is more difficult, Morse said. The plan is to develop and sustain programs, similar to the Boys and Girls club, that keep kids out of gangs.
Morse said the county's gang problem is the "single most prevalent threat" and called for a collaboration between law enforcement, government and schools to address the issue.
Kelsey asked staff to make a list of county resources and costs of rehabilitation, and bring it back to the board. Once staff has presented those items, Kelsey said, the board can determine what action needs to be taken.
"When we understand exactly what we're talking about, and the reasons behind some of these events, then we can more or less set a goal for changing things and improving the situation within our community," she said.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.