From the bench of a cafeteria-style table in a backroom of the public library, 'Sarah' is talking about her past. She speaks softly and sits upright, maintaining eye contact. Sarah is pretty, polite and white. Not long ago, she was involved in gang activity.
'We did a lot of thefts and stole from stores,' says Sarah, a pseudonym. 'We did a couple robberies, just waiting for people at ATMs. But that was more when I was living on the streets and didn't have anywhere to go.'
Sarah is an unlikely candidate for gang involvement, having been home-schooled and raised in a religious household. Yet when she transferred into the public school system as a teenager, Sarah joined the most welcoming group around: the troublemakers. There, Sarah found support, protection and, most important, inclusion.
While Sarah was never officially initiated into a gang, many of her friends were. She says it wasn't like gangs in Chicago and other big cities, 'where they're shooting each other and having territory wars.' But Sarah's friends had more than a passing acquaintance with drugs, crime and violence. And Sarah understands the attraction.
'Being in a gang gives you identity, something you can relate to,' says Sarah, who got control of her life with help from a county program aimed at curbing gang activity. 'And for kids already having problems, it gives them something to associate with and be proud of. It's important to be a member of something.'
In the current race for state attorney general, Republican J.B. Van Hollen touts his record of 'cracking down on gangs, drugs and guns,' but the candidate and his staff did not respond to repeated interview requests.
During the primary, incumbent AG Peg Lautenschlager pointed to rising gang activity in Dane County as evidence of failure by challenger Kathleen Falk, the Dane County executive. But Falk, who won, proudly cites her anti-gang initiatives as potential state models.
'One of the key reasons I gave [when I announced my candidacy] was to work on gang problems, because they exist statewide,' says Falk. And while she's troubled by gang crimes in Dane County and the 122 murders in Milwaukee last year, many of which were gang-related, Falk says, 'It isn't a Dane County or Milwaukee problem, but a statewide issue.'
Falk says gangs must be addressed at 'every point of the spectrum.' She lists a myriad of county initiatives, from after-school programs, to a long-running neighborhood intervention program that works with troubled youth, to a new residential and detention program for gang-involved adolescent males in Dane County.
'To give you an idea of the commitment and level of programming,' Falk says, 'half the county's budget is spent on public services like these.' Two new program leaders were added to the neighborhood intervention program this year, and Falk's 2007 budget funds a new sheriff's detective who'll work specifically on gang issues.
According to a 2005 report by the Dane County Youth Commission, 1,300 of the 33,000 middle and high school students in Dane County identify themselves as gang members, a 30% increase from 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, gang membership by blacks, Latinos and Asians is on the rise. Nonwhites now make up half of the county's self-described gang members. And sophisticated, well-funded gangs in larger cities are infiltrating smaller communities and building ties with local gangs. Last year's shooting in the town of Oregon grew out of a confrontation between Bloods and Crips, two well-known national gangs.
Bobby Moore, a social worker with the 'Right Track, Second Chance' program run by Dane County Human Services, is on the frontlines of local gang activity. He works with serious offenders, mostly 12- to 18-year-olds convicted of crimes like armed robbery or aggravated battery. The goal is to keep kids out of prison and turn them toward more productive pursuits.
But Moore, who grew up amid gangs in Chicago, says he and other social workers are hard-pressed to cope with rising caseloads. In his 17 years with the county, 'there hasn't been a fresh, new social worker slot added to the program.'
Moore says Dane County needs 'good programs, decent jobs, and to deal with kids in the school system' ' all issues being addressed in one way or another by the county. He's less sure of the wisdom of taking a punitive approach to gang activity, which is also part of Falk's approach.
Indeed, much of a position paper on gangs released by Falk as part of her campaign for attorney general consists of talking tough. She says she's 'taking the fight to gangs,' and promises to '[put] gang members where they belong: behind bars.'
This is a sentiment that is often put into practice. One recent example are the sentences handed down by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Fiedler to the men involved in the Oregon shootings last year. The defendants, who were between the ages of 16 and 19 when they jumped out of a car and opened fire, wounding several rivals, received stiff jail terms, ranging from 12 to 27 years.
One person involved in the county's gang programs, who asked not to be identified, is critical of this approach: 'Sending kids to prison is the worst thing you can do if you want to keep them out of gangs. In prison, they're going to have to be in a gang if they want to survive.'
Moore, for his part, calls much of the political tough talk on gangs 'just plain rhetoric.' To truly fight gangs, he says, we need to address the problems within the communities that have gangs. Impoverished neighborhoods are surefire centers of gang and criminal activity.
'You cannot put poverty on top of poverty,' says Moore. 'If you do, it's just going to breed more poverty.'
That's where social programs come in, 'to teach our kids about how to make good life-choice decisions that their communities and parents might not be able to teach them.' Lessons like these, says Moore, 'aren't gonna fall out of the sky and hit 'em on the head.'
Five years after taking part in the county's neighborhood intervention program, Sarah is now a college graduate on her way to becoming a social worker.
'I think a lot of kids get stuck because they just don't see any other way,' she says. 'They've never had those kinds of people in their lives that showed them that life can be different. And my social worker made me see that I did have some choices.'