Gang membership on the rise in Kern Co.

Gang membership on the rise in Kern Co.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Gang population is growing across the country. Kern County is no exception.

According to a new report from the FBI, Kern County is now home to 13,011 gang members. Just two years ago, the same report indicated Kern County's gang population was in the range of 3,500 to 9,999.

"You do get a lot of influx from gang members of different regions:36 from the L.A. area, from up from northern California coming down to our area to conduct illegal activity," said Sgt. Bobby Woolard of the Bakersfield Police Department.

Police do not deny there are more gang members out there. But, according to BPD, gang violence is down.

"In 2009, we had 47 documented gang-related shootings. In 2010, we had 49 documented gang-related shootings, and up to date this year, in 2011, we've seen a reduction. We've only had 30 documented gang-related shootings," said Woolard.

For youth advocates in Bakersfield, such as Manuel Carrizalez, the numbers are still concerning. Carrizalez is the director of Stay Focused Ministries.

"Thirty-three thousand gangs across the U.S. That's ridiculous. I mean, America has become a gang-infested nation," Carrizalez said.

Carrizalez is a self-proclaimed former gang member. The lifestyle led him to a life behind bars.

Today, he uses his experiences to help mentor at-risk teens. "They come to our program because it's a refuge,"said Carrizalez.

Carrizalez considers 18-year old Joel Salinas to be an at-risk teen.

"Sophomore year, I just started going downhill. I couldn't keep my grades up. I didn't stay on the football team," Salinas said. But. with the help of Stay Focused Ministries, Salinas turned his life around.

"More proud than I've ever been of myself right now. I qualified for honor roll," he said.

Salinas is a success story. Bakersfield police said they've seen similar success stories through community programs, such as the Bakersfield Safe Streets Partnership.

"What we've tried to do different is really look at the individual member themselves and tell them that there's different opportunities and try to educate them on what the advantages would be," Woolard said. Even the police sergeant admited the solution must be greater.

"You're dealing with different generations of how to approach a certain gang member. So that tactic may work on one person, but it won't necessarily work on somebody that's younger. It's never a one-answer fix-all problem," he said.

The experts agree that the more people working together, the better.

"We all get plans on how we can do this, but what happens is everybody is going 101 different ways," Carrizalez said.

But the once troubled teen says it only takes one person to make the real difference.

"It takes someone to show you what you're capable of," Salinas said.