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Jill Porter: Axing anti-crime programs a short-sighted mistake?

WHILE the public furor over city budget cuts is focused on libraries, two high-profile violence-prevention programs championed by the Street administration are being axed.

WHILE the public furor over city budget cuts is focused on libraries, two high-profile violence-prevention programs championed by the Street administration are being axed.

One of them - the curfew centers - has been credited for a precipitous drop in crime, including an 83 percent decline in juvenile shootings in one police district.

The other canceled program is the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership (AVRP), for troubled 10- to 15-year-olds.

The city now says the initiatives aren't working.

Some prominent community leaders say otherwise.

"Considering these are the youths most at risk of delinquency, it was real important to keep [AVRP] open, particularly at economic times when stuff gets hard and crime goes up," said Pat DeCarlo, director of the Norris Square Civic Assocation.

If DeCarlo is irate, Cheryl Weiss - whose agency ran a curfew center and an AVRP center - is worried.

"I worry that there are many ingredients in the making for a kind of perfect storm come the summer," said Weiss, director

of Diversified Community Services.

No pools. Fewer libraries. Now this.

"You just kind of wonder what's going to happen."

When Mayor John Street inaugurated AVRP in 2005, it was championed by a city councilman named Michael Nutter.

"Finally, we'll be getting the desperately needed services people have been asking for," Nutter said then.

The program seemed a natural outgrowth of the successful Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, an intensive intervention for offenders ages 15-24.

AVRP linked delinquent teens and tweens with a youth-outreach worker who mentored them and monitored their school work and home life.

It expanded to include a wider scope of at-risk adolescents and added 20 center-based programs to the 15 youth-worker sites.

The kids who qualified, said Norris Square's DeCarlo, are too unruly for run-of-the-mill programs.

"They'll call the staff, 'Bitch, m-----f-----'; they'll go off on a fit of temper. One kid graffitied the wall in the building.

"These are real potential trouble-makers who are going to end up as criminals."

But Dr. Donald Schwarz, deputy mayor and city health commissioner, said that the majority of kids in AVRP - operated with $3 million in city money and $12 million from the state - never completed the six-month program and that "delinquency rates didn't go down."

"I have no hard evidence to show the state that the investment was providing any outcome," he said.

Schwarz said no formal study had been done but that information gathered from providers and other participants convinced the city that AVRP didn't justify the expense in a financial crisis.

He said the political rivalry between Nutter and Street played no role in the decision - adding that Nutter supported the program when he came into office, before the financial crisis.

Critics of the decision say the program wasn't around long enough to prove itself.

"You know when you run programs, you just don't get them up and running and they work fabulously in a year's time," said Weiss.

"It takes time and tinkering."

The centers were closed in September. The youth-worker sites will close Dec. 31.

Some 3,135 youths enrolled this year will be on their own.

The curfew centers are another Street initiative that will end with the close of the Dixon House program on Dec. 31.

"It's a really bitter pill to swallow," said Weiss, whose agency inaugurated the pilot program at the Point Breeze center in 2006.

The centers, staffed by volunteers and social workers, were sites where police could drop off teens who were on the street after curfew and presumably up to no good.

In early 2007, police noted a dramatic drop in juvenile shootings in the police districts covered by the Dixon program - down 60 percent in the First District, in South Philadelphia, and 83 percent in the 17th, in Point Breeze.

The city opened 11 more centers, but they were less successful, officials said.

Now, the four that remain open will be closed, despite the support of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

Schwarz said police officers were taking kids home or issuing citations for curfew violations rather than taking them to the centers.

There were times that staff outnumbered teenagers, he said.

"All the data show we are spending an awful lot of money for low utilization," said Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety.

But I wonder if the long-term math adds up.

Youths who become habitual offenders into adulthood cost taxpayers, on average, as much as $2.3 million, according to a 2006 study.

The city will save about $6 million a year by closing both of these programs.

If AVRP or the crisis centers saved only three kids a year from going the wrong way - and you can be sure they did - we'd still save money in the long run.

"I understand these programs are expensive," DeCarlo said. "But for stuff that's targeted to your future juvenile delinquents, the ones that are going to give you a hard time, that's a lot cheaper than having people in jail." *

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