NASHVILLE — Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield says critics of his anti-gang legislation in the General Assembly shouldn’t ignore the second half of his comprehensive approach to addressing youth violence.
“The strength of this [legislation] is that it removes the worst of the worst,” the mayor said. “But we also want to save and salvage all of the young people and keep them from getting into gangs.”
It’s a “dual course,” he said.
“Already, we’re talking about the outreach,” said Littlefield, who was at the state Capitol last week to observe developments on the legislation.
In recent days two black lawmakers from Chattanooga have questioned Littlefield’s approach with the anti-gang bills, one of which would use the state’s existing Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to give criminal gang leaders more prison time.
The second measure would boost penalties for people actively participating in a gang, those who know gang members are engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity and those willfully promoting felonious conduct.
“I feel this really will not address the problem,” Rep. JoAnne Favors said recently. “I think more needs to be done in the way of intervention. We already have ways to deal with individuals who break the law.”
Favors added she wants “to see changes in behavior up front. Being punitive is the easy way out, and it’s not been demonstrated to be effective.”
Rep. Tommie Brown last week also voiced reservations as she held a session for constituents about gang-related issues.
“Show me something other than just throwing the net and dragging our babies into jail,” she said. “What else is out there? Where are the jobs?”
Littlefield said, “We absolutely agree with Representative Brown and Representative Favors, both of whom have expressed their reservations about stronger laws because we’d be arresting more young black men.
“That’s not the intent,” the mayor said. “The intent is to get the worst of the worst out of our community so we can focus on those who are not so entrenched in the gang lifestyle that their lives can’t be salvaged and turned into a positive direction.”
He stressed that the city’s strategy includes schools, social service agencies, nonprofits, businesses and police to deal with problems, including a Christmas Eve shooting that wounded nine young people outside a church that housed a teen club.
At Littlefield’s urging, the City Council in February approved a $75,000 contract with the nonprofit Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies to conduct an assessment of gang problems.
“[City officials] right now are looking at new programs with the Parks and Recreation Department,” Littlefield said. “We’re working even with the Rotary Club.”
The two officials he hired to spearhead a coordinated approach to gang problems — Boyd Patterson, a Hamilton County assistant district attorney, and Fred Houser, a former case manager and counselor at the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center — recently addressed the Rotary Club.
“Fred and Boyd went and said, ‘You guys and ladies in the Rotary Club, step up and help us to do these things. Help us to provide jobs, help us provide programs, help us provide better support for the Boys Club, Girls Club, the Bethlehem Center — for all of those good social agencies that we might have gotten a little lax ... about supporting.’”
According to a report last month on WRCB-TV, Boyd and Houser both urged Rotary members to get involved.
“It’s time for Chattanooga to invest in its youth culture,” Houser said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...