Young people are killed in Merced County at the fifth-highest rate in the state, according to a study released this week.
The annual study, “Lost Youth,” uses unpublished data from the California Department of Justice Supplementary Homicide Report to determine the number of people between ages 10 and 24 who are killed per 100,000 people.
The study put Monterey, Madera, San Francisco and Alameda counties, in that order, in front of Merced.
The numbers come from 2013, the latest available, when Merced had 13 homicides in that age range. That put Merced at 19.39 homicides per 100,000 people.
Law enforcement officials point to Merced County’s gang problem as the major culprit behind the violence young people face. They say that problem won’t be fixed as long as the Merced County Sheriff’s Department has 15 or more deputy positions unfilled.
“We’re all pretty frustrated that we’re not devoting the resources this situation demands,” said District Attorney Larry Morse II.
Merced County had 29 total homicides in 2013, 31 in 2014 and, so far this year, 27. Morse said the bloodshed in Merced is especially troubling because violent crime has trended down in much of the state.
Morse said the best solution would be to keep young people out of gangs altogether. He has teamed with the Merced County Office of Education for a program that encourages young people to finish high school, but noted more needs to be done across the county.
“I don’t know a nice way to say (this); whatever we’re doing isn’t getting it done,” he said.
All of the victims in the report were killed by guns, and four were shot with handguns.
Sheriff Vern Warnke said the lack of funds to hire and keep deputies is highlighted once again by the numbers in the report. With more deputies, he said, there would be room to beef up a unit designated for gang-related crimes.
He said it “saddens” him that Merced would rank so high on the list. “These things take time,” he said. “There’s no quick fix to any of this.”
Twelve of the 13 victims were male, the report said. Nine were Hispanic, two were white, one was black, and one was Asian or Pacific Islander.
Claudia Gonzalez, an organizer with Merced Organizing Project, said funding needs to be directed to programs that keep young people from ever joining a gang. She heads up Live Free Merced, which is a local effort to reduce gun violence as well as address other issues that affect people of color.
Keeping children busy after school and educating parents on what they need to do for their children are some of the efforts that could prevent children from entering a gang, she said. “We know if children are busy – engaged in school activities or work – they are less likely to join gangs,” she said. “The thing is, we don’t have that here in Merced.”
Statewide, homicide was the top killer of young blacks and second for Hispanics. It was the fourth most common killer for young whites and Asians or Pacific Islanders and the third most common killer of young Native Americans.
The study is released annually by Violence Policy Center, a national educational organization working to stop gun death and injury.
“Most of California’s young homicide victims die by gunfire. Comprehensive efforts to reduce youth homicide should take into account the role played by firearms, including what types of weapons are most frequently used and where they come from,” said Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the organization. “Such information, along with localized data, can aid in the prevention and intervention efforts of communities across the state.