CONYERS - Law enforcement officials painted a grim picture last week of gang life for youngsters at the Evening Reporting Center of Rockdale County's Juvenile Court.
Approximately 25 teens who had been sentenced by Juvenile Court to attend the Evening Reporting Center listened as experts told them the real story behind being a gang member.
Awareness forums like the one held last Tuesday are a way to break down misconceptions that draw some young people to gangs, and hopefully, steer them away from gangs, Rockdale Juvenile Court Judge William Schneider said.
"Gangs can be the hardest thing parents compete with, so this is just an attempt to open communications with those on the streets to show what gangs are all about," he said.
Everyone at the forum admitted that parents have the most important role, and the toughest job, in preventing children from getting involved with gangs.
Newton County Sheriff's Office Deputy James Fountain said during the ERC gang forum that "a nosy parent" is the best defense.
"You have to make it a point to know who your kids are hanging out with," said Fountain, who is the school resource officer at Eastside High School. "If they don't want to bring their friends over to your house, then that's a signal to find out who they are or to get to know their parents."
Fountain said he sees "hybrid gangs" in his work as resource officer for EHS. The groups are typically "friends who come up with rules and a name and call themselves a gang," he said. The local gangs have no connections to larger, outside groups and tend to come and go.
Despite the local nature of these "wannabe" gang members, Fountain said they can be dangerous because "they're out to make their bones; to prove themselves to be gang-worthy by committing criminal acts."
Lt. Carl Fletcher of the Macon Police Department is in demand statewide to share his expertise on gang activity. He told the group Tuesday night that gaining entry to a gang could be a life sentence.
"There are only two ways to get out of a gang - you can go to jail for a long time or you die. That's it," said Fletcher, who is an investigator in the violent crimes unit in Macon.
Along with the hand signals, clothing and graffiti, the law enforcement officers presented photos of shooting victims involved with gangs. The session was designed to be a heavy-handed look at gangs not only to inform teenagers but also to serve as a warning that gangs are bad news and should be avoided.
Fletcher explained young people initially get into gangs because they are looking for a sense of belonging. However, the reality in gang life is different. Members must constantly prove themselves to their fellow gang members by committing crimes. The concept of responsibility does not sink in until it's too late.
"These guys live for the moment and never plan for the future," he said. "They sleep well at night because they are sleeping in their own beds. Tomorrow is not here, so why even think about it? The only time they think about it is when a cell door in prison slams shut and they wonder, 'My God, why did I do that?'"
Fletcher added that a gang's support ends when a member is arrested. "Do you think anybody is going to take up a collection to bail you out?" he asked the group. "And once you're in jail, don't think your gang buddies will visit you."
Jay Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.