Crimefighting effort marks regional progress

Friday, May 17, 2002



AND HEIDI HALL ~ Southeast Missourian

The federal government can hand down grant money. The local police can make arrests.

But in the end, cleaning up neighborhoods lies in the hands of the people who live in them, said Tracy Henke, who oversees U.S. Department of Justice programs.

She was the keynote speaker at the Great Plains Regional Weed and Seed Conference on Thursday at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. The conference ends today.

The Justice Department unveiled Weed and Seed 10 years ago. It came to Southeast Missouri in August 1995 with the opening of its Sikeston office and grew to include Cape Girardeau, Caruthersville, Charleston and Poplar Bluff.

The program is advantageous, proponents say, because it puts those charged with crimes -- generally related to drugs and violence -- in the federal justice system, where there are mandatory sentences, no parole and strict sentencing guidelines.

"Our first job in Weed and Seed is to put dangerous criminals in jail," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Ferrell. "We are to remove those whose only goals are to violate the law and disrespect themselves and others."

He cited problems in the Sunset area of Sikeston, where drugs were once rampant. He showed an undercover video of a riot on Felker Street in Sikeston, culminating with a shooting.

But Ferrell said since Weed and Seed was implemented there, 53 people have been charged with violent crimes. All but two of these have been convicted. The other two are awaiting trial.

The federal government seized the hangout where the shooting occurred.

Those arrested were charged with various drug and weapons charges. He pointed to similar results in the rest of the region: 132 arrested, and 127 of those convicted.

To Lisa Lane, executive director of Southeast Missouri's Weed and Seed, it's more than just law enforcement. She said the "seeding" portion of the program has helped implement community programs that clean up blighted areas.

Bike and foot patrols have been implemented, neighborhood watch programs have been organized, community gardens have been planted and suggestion boxes have been set up.

They have funneled grants from the U.S. Department of Justice for equipment and overtime for police so that crime fighting may be stepped up. Similar money has gone to community groups for restoration projects.

"It's a cooperative effort between all these groups," Lane said.

But Henke, who works closely with Attorney General John Ashcroft, hinted that the money might not always be there. Weed and Seed has grown to more than 300 sites nationwide, each receiving an average of $250,000 per year. They have to reapply annually for grants, and it's possible that some will have to turn to local resources, she said.

Henke said she wanted conference participants to take away two things from her presentation: Weed and Seed is sustainable for the long term with their help, and it's important to turn to faith-based organizations for participation.

Some in attendance Thursday lauded the program but said there's a long way to go.

"They did good about getting some people off the streets, but then others came," said Jessica Mitchell, 14, a member of Sikeston's Weed and Seed Youth Steering Committee.

And while LaToya Robinson-Tate, Sikeston's Weed and Seed program manager, said she enjoyed Ferrell's presentation, she would like to see it shown in her hometown's Weed and Seed neighborhood.

"Let's invite the kids to see those people they looked up to go to jail instead of letting them think, 'Oh, he moved,'" she said.

335-6611, extension 137

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