Santa Ana Youth Need More ‘Positive’ Spending, Says New Study by Health Advocates

How to manage investments in police and youth programs have been a longstanding debate in Santa Ana. (Photos by City of Santa Ana and Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Santa Ana officials spend more money arresting young people than developing them positively through libraries, mentorship, job skills and other initiatives, according to a new study commissioned by health advocates.

“The city’s future will depend on how well we invest and treat our youth and, unfortunately, the city is investing too much on punishment,” said Abraham Medina, executive director of Resilience OC, the activist group that released the study Monday with support from the nonprofit Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities coalition.

City officials, meanwhile, say they’ll need time to review the report’s findings and their own data before commenting on whether the report is accurate.

(Click here to read the report.)

Santa Ana’s overall population is one of the youngest in the nation and has an ongoing debate over how to handle its investments in youth development and law enforcement.

Members of the Building Healthy Communities group have long argued the city needs to expand its investments in youth development.

As part of that effort, Resilience OC commissioned the new study, which estimated the portion of city spending devoted to youth aged zero through 19 this fiscal year.

The conclusion: Santa Ana will spend $19.5 million this year arresting youth, and $15.3 million on what the study’s authors called “positive youth development” like libraries and parks.

The report did not include spending on after school programs and other youth services by the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Advocates with the health coalition say the city government’s spending dynamic needs to change.

“Youth make-up one third of our city’s population, however, they are the least supported by the city,” Medina said in a statement.

“Our youth need investments in real safety, such as after school programs, community centers, and in data driven responses to youth behavior that are not the police department,” he added.

City officials said they haven’t had a chance to confirm the report’s accuracy, but stand ready to review and discuss it with the activists.

“I am not familiar with the [Building Healthy Communities] report nor on the type of methodology that they took to arrive at their conclusion,” said Acting City Manager Gerardo Mouet in an email Sunday to Voice of OC.

Mouet added that Police Chief Carlos Rojas told him “that he has no knowledge of the [activists’] report and that the [Police] Department does not track costs related to juvenile arrests.”

He asked that the activists “please share the report and be prepared to meet with me and discuss. Perhaps this could develop as an opportunity to increase the public awareness about these efforts.”

Mouet told Voice of OC last month he believed the city has its own figures for how much it spends on youth programs and would provide it within a day. But, after multiple follow-up emails from Voice of OC over the following weeks, he said Sunday it was still in the works.

The issue of how much to invest in youth programs and police was a hot-button one in last year’s City Council election.

Several candidates pointed to rising crime rates as evidence the city needs to focus on expanding its police force and restoring specialized units like a gang strike force and vice squad.

Between 2013 and 2016, shooting assaults tripled and violent crime overall jumped 40 percent, according to police department data. Homicides nearly doubled last year from the prior year.

Other candidates – including those backed by the health activists – emphasized expanding the city’s focus on youth development, arguing that increasing opportunities for young people would be beneficial to youth and help reduce crime.

In the end, those who emphasized investing in law enforcement won by large margins in November, helped in part by major spending by the city’s police union to get the candidates’ message before voters.

The Building Healthy Communities study also looked at spending by the County of Orange, which is responsible for public health services, including mental health, as well as jails, probation and prosecution.

It found an even starker disparity in county government spending, with $16 million spent countywide on “positive youth programming” through libraries and workforce development and $143 million spent on what the study called “suppression” of youth through the sheriff’s and probation departments.

The study, however, did not take into account youth development spending through the county Social Services Agency and Health Care Agency, nor prosecution spending through the District Attorney’s Office.

And the study counts the probation department entirely as “suppression.” In recent years the department says it has invested in programs to try to improve the behavior of youth without locking them up.

One such program is “aggression replacement training,” where over the course of 30 sessions, youth learn social skills, anger control, and moral reasoning.

A top probation department official says this type of approach is proven to work.

“Research indicates that anti-social thinking is the primary factor that drives criminal behavior,” and by teaching social behavior to kids they’re less likely to commit crimes, said Doug Sanger, the department’s juvenile hall director, in a 2015 interview.

By many key measures, children in Santa Ana’s low-income, densely populated neighborhoods have far fewer opportunities than their peers in nearby cities. It also has among the fewest per-capita police officers among similarly-sized cities in California.

Part of that has to do with the fact that Santa Ana has among the lowest property tax revenues per-resident of any city in Orange County.

Much of this seems to be related to overcrowded housing, which is a particularly common issue in Santa Ana amid high housing costs and low family incomes. Multiple families often live in a single apartment, though the extra occupancy doesn’t lead to additional property tax revenue for city services.

The budget analysis was conducted for the Building Healthy Communities coalition by Advancement Project California, a civil rights advocacy group. The Building Healthy Communities coalition is funded by the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.