Seventeen young men walked into the gymnasium at Modesto's Mark Twain Junior High School on Thursday evening, not knowing they would be given an ultimatum.
These young men, ages 13 to 18, are documented members of a west Modesto gang that has terrorized the neighborhood with violence and crimes. They're all on probation and are considered to be at high risk of offending again.
Modesto police gave them one last chance to leave behind the gang life and take advantage of resources that could help them finish school and get careers.
Participants got a few days to make their decisions: If they declined the offer and continued their criminal activity, they would face intense enforcement by local, state and federal authorities as long as they remained on the street.
"I can put all these resources to locking you up, or I can expose you to other opportunities," acting Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden told them. "Too many people have been hurt, and too many people have died from violence in our community. And the violence must stop."
The ultimatum was the first step for Modesto police's Project SAFE, or Striving for Accountability and Future Employment. The department received a $389,000 grant last year to start the carrot-and-stick program.
Project SAFE forces gang members on probation or parole to meet with a team of representatives from law enforcement and community organizations. The ultimatums will be given to a new group of gang members at least once a month. The meetings will take place at locations considered to be safe havens in the gang's neighborhood.
"We didn't want to have the meetings at the Police Department," said Modesto police Lt. Chris Fuzie. "It's like getting called to the principal's office."
Once they're given the ultimatum, the gang members are interviewed individually by community volunteers. They're asked questions about their home life, school progress and criminal past.
The gang members are encouraged to take advantage of services such as job training, guidance from faith-based groups and mentorships. They can get help with earning a General Equivalency Diploma, finishing high school and heading to college.
If they choose to continue their gang activity, they will be the focus of aggressive enforcement for public drinking, vehicle violations, outstanding warrants, narcotics violations and violent acts, followed by intense prosecution.
They'll be subject to gang sweeps and probation and parole searches.
"We're going to come at them with the full force of the law," said Fuzie, who supervises the department's gang investigations and enforcement units. "It's not harassment. We're using the law the way it was designed."
Mirrors Boston program
The program mirrors Operation Ceasefire in Boston, which officials credit with lowering the city's crime rate.
Youth homicides in Boston fell from more than 70 in 1990 before Operation Ceasefire started to fewer than 20 in the last year of the program in 2000, according to a Harvard University review. Youth homicides rose in the four years after the program ended.
Modesto police are working with the Stanislaus County Probation Department, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office and several federal agencies on the program.
"This is your last chance," said Raul Dominguez, Stanislaus County probation officer and member of the Juvenile High Risk Unit. "We know everything you're doing. We're tired of losing youngsters to the gang life."
Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan, who prosecutes most gang-related cases, vowed to use anything, including their homework, to show gang involvement and add enhancements to any charges, which can mean longer prison time.
"Ten years of putting young people in prison, it wears on you," Brennan said. "But I'm not slowing down."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Sanchez warned the group there is no chance of parole in federal prison, where offenders have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Gang members are usually moved every six months, and they're sent to facilities all over the country.
"You will be moved around thousands of miles away from your family and friends," Sanchez said.
The young men also received warnings and a message of support from agencies and community groups.
That included the Stanislaus County Alliance Worknet, which received a state grant to train reformed gang members.
Carlos Cervantes is a coordinator for the agency and works with those looking for job skills and a way out of gangs.
Cervantes grew up in Modesto's airport neighborhood and is familiar with the gang activity that led a lot of his friends into prison.
"I know this is an opportunity for change," Cervantes told the group. "I wish we had these opportunities when we were young. I would still be talking to a lot of my friends."
Job training offered
Cervantes said Alliance Worknet can assess a person's skill level, provide training and tutoring, food and gas vouchers, organize résumé- building and job interview workshops, and help someone get work experience.
The agency is working with about 70 reformed gang members and hopes to help more through Project SAFE. Cervantes pointed out two participants getting weatherization and solar technology training at Modesto Junior College.
"They're good individuals. They just made bad choices," Cervantes said. "They just need guidance to turn things around."
Martha Cisneros of the Stanislaus County Office of Education will offer initial guidance for these young men. She has been hired to be a case worker for Project SAFE.
Cisneros said she has received phone calls from two of the young men in Thursday's meeting, saying they are interested in the program.
She has helped troubled kids before, working as drug prevention coordinator in the toughest gang-infested neighborhoods in Stockton.
With Project SAFE, her job will be to steer them to resources, monitor progress and make sure the help they're receiving is working.
"I'm going to be like glue," Cisneros said. "I'm going to be stuck on these guys."
Like Cisneros, Jorge Perez told the young men Thursday that there is a way out of gangs. He spoke about his youth as a gang member in Salinas and how he left the criminal life behind and sought a career in education.
Perez is now an outreach coordinator for Modesto City Schools, helping at-risk students.
"I got a second chance," Perez said to the young men. "Today, all of you here have a second chance."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.