Solution to gangs is community, panel urges

A Reno native, John Simms remembers a time when there were no gangs in this area. When he became a juvenile probation officer in Carson City 26 years ago, the biggest concern was marijuana and stolen hub caps, he said.

He also remembers when gangs started moving in, and law enforcement looked away.

"We went through a denial process," he said. "There are no gangs here. We said that politically. We said that in newspapers. We said that to our children and our families.

"Our knee-jerk reaction at the time when we started seeing gang activity in Carson City was to treat it like a war - arrest them and lock them up."

Now, he said, things have changed. Simms, chief juvenile probation officer, joined a panel Friday at the Carson City Library to talk about the community's role in combating gangs and other youth crime.

He said the city started making progress in fighting gangs when the community came together to create institutions like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Nevada, the Ron Wood Family Resource Center and most recently Partnership Carson City.

"The community's holistic approach is what we need to keep doing," he said. "That is where we start making headway."

The forum was inspired by a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in September focused on gangs. The guest speaker was the mayor of Salinas, Calif., who pointed to the city's partnership with the public library to increase literacy as a way to combat gang involvement.

Sara Jones, director of the Carson City Library, invited Salinas library director Elizabeth Martinez to elaborate on that partnership.

Martinez joined Jones and Simms in hosting the forum. She told of how her community is being transformed after the city council voted in 2004 to close the John Steinbeck Public Library.

The next year, voters agreed to a half-cent sales tax to support the library.

"Our mayor believes libraries are part of the solution," Martinez said. "The mayor and the city council have made it a goal to create a culture of literacy."

The mayor supported an initiative to give every child in Salinas a library card and is now spearheading a campaign called, "What are you reading?" where he carries a new book around with him every month in hopes of inspiring conversation about literacy.

Jones said she hopes Carson City will look to Salinas for some solutions. She's already started distributing library cards at Silver State Charter School with plans to expand the program.

"I like how they've highlighted literacy," she said. "I'd like to see something like that evolve here."

The key, Simms said, is participation from all groups.

"It's a community issue," he said. "It's not a law-enforcement issue. Not even close. By the time a gang member gets to our office, it's too late a lot of times."


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