Gang prevention funding controversy

Spence Neighbourhood Association executive director speaks out on issue

Jamil Mahmood, executive director of the Spence Neighbourhood Association, called the Conservative government’s $7.5 million for youth gang prevention across the country a “joke.” “To only invest this much (in youth gang prevention programs), when you look at how much they’re spending on locking up kids - it’s absurd,” he says. Dylan Hewlett

Funding for youth gang prevention is in dire need of an increase, the director of a leading inner-city organization says.

Jamil Mahmood, executive director of the Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA), made his comments during a recent news conference where Conservative MP Shelly Glover announced applications were being accepted to fund community-based youth gang prevention programs.

“It’s just not enough money,” said SNA executive director Jamil Mahmood “(Seven and a half) million dollars (per year) across Canada to do gang prevention work is a joke.

“Our youth centres are full, our jails are full, and gang activity is not stopping anytime soon,” he said. “To only invest this much (in youth gang prevention programs), when you look at how much they’re spending on locking up kids - it’s absurd.”

According to Mahmood, the SNA, which has been involved in the Spence neighbourhood for 12 years, aims to revitalize and renew in the areas of health, safety, youth well-being, housing and community and economic development.

“We work for the community,” he explained. “The community sets our plans and gives us guidance. We follow the lead of the community and work to make it a better place.”

While youth street gang prevention is only one of many of the organization’s objectives, working with at-risk children is a cause that its members are especially passionate about.

“We’re in a community where we have kids that need help, so for us it’s about the kids - it’s about giving them an opportunity,” said Mahmood. “There’s no reason why a kid who’s born into poverty should only have the options of gangs and jail.”

The government allocates $44 million per year to the National Crime Prevention Strategy, Glover said. The youth gang prevention fund, with $7.5 million, is one of four funds within the strategy, she said.

“Both (the overall strategy and youth gang prevention fund) are receiving the same amount as before,” she said.

To only invest this much (in youth gang prevention programs), when you look at how much they’re spending on locking up kids - it’s absurd.

Jamil Mahmood, executive director, Spence Neighbourhood Association

Glover expressed gratitude toward grassroots organizations such as SNA, but said that it’s always difficult to direct more funding to programs, because so many exist and require funds of their own.

“It’s a huge challenge,” she said. “We’re going to try to save as many (at-risk youths) as we can, but for any government to say that they can eliminate the problem - that’s living in a dream world.”

Still, Glover said that she supports the Harper government’s approach to the justice system, which has often been described as “tough on crime.”

“I think we’re smart on crime,” she said. “You cannot have a lack of balance (regarding prevention and punishment).”

The issue of gang prevention program funding appears to be inextricably linked to the larger debate between varying ideologies that inform different approaches to the problem of crime.

Steven Kohm, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, expressed concern over the federal government’s strategy.

“These new initiatives (by the Harper government), I think, will be very expensive,” he said. “My fear is that some of these initiatives may come at the expense of preventative programs like Spence (Neighbourhood Association).”

Mahmood said that while he had not originally intended to speak at the event, Glover invited him to make a statement in front of the media.

“I asked some questions, and then the news went crazy with it,” he said.

Mahmood explained that the Winnipeg Free Press coverage of the story made it appear as though he had claimed that national funding for programs similar to his had been drastically and directly decreased - something that he had not intended to express.

He still chooses to remain optimistic on the matter.

“We’re going to continue working at it,” he said. “They’re either going to fund it now or they’re going to fund it later.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 7, 2012)

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