While violent crime is generally declining, juvenile crime continues to rise. In an effort to curb this trend, the San Francisco Police Department is joining forces with a privately funded project, called Midnight Hacker, designed to keep at-risk juveniles off the streets, out of trouble and involved in productive activities.

Midnight Hacker, which is sponsored by the Recreation and Parks Department of the city and county of San Francisco, was launched last April and was created by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in cooperation with the National Association of Midnight Basketball Leagues. Midnight Shakespeare is a similar program started in 1982 that has had enormous success in building self-esteem among underprivileged children and providing them with jobs in the arts.

BUILD A BETTER PLACE

Bobby Winston, the producer of Midnight Shakespeare, and Lani Luthard, community relations manager at San Jose, Calif.-based Bay Networks -- one of the sponsors of Midnight Hacker -- put their heads together to come up with a new activity for at-risk kids (kids who aren't criminals yet, but who have the potential to go that direction). The idea was to design a program similar to the other "midnight-themed" activities. This time, however, they went a step further -- they devised a plan that would give kids job training and career skills. Thus, the idea of a technology-related agenda was born. This agenda would also accomplish another goal -- to close the widening gap between the computer "haves" and "have nots."

"There is a disturbing lack of computer access in lower-income areas," said Winston. "It's terrible that the computer -- which is the pencil of the future -- is not being made available to poor African-American and ethnic children."

In an effort to increase computer literacy, Winston and Luthard came up with the name Midnight Hacker, though Winston expressed anxiety about the use of the word "hacker."

"We felt that hacker might have a negative connotation," said Luthard. "But we decided it isn't offensive, and kids on the streets will want to get involved because they think it's cool. We believe that if you give young adults something interesting and productive to do they will choose that over less desirable activities."

Thus, Winston and Luthard set out to train kids how to use computers and then apply these newfound skills to paid positions. Initially, kids will be trained at a new computer lab located at the Milton Meyer Center in San Francisco, which has been set up with computers donated by USL Capital. Kids can attend classes on Windows, Word, Excel and other business applications.

Once the kids have gone through basic training, the framework is established to help them apply these skills in real-life jobs. This is where the Police Department as well as private companies like Bay Networks enter the picture. The Police Department volunteered to have the kids develop sophisticated crime incident maps for use in fighting crime on bus lines.

"Not only will we be training kids on how to use a specific application, but they'll also wind up with an actual job," said Stan Hebert, national director of the Midnight Basketball League. "They'll be acquiring job skills, getting paid and providing a valuable service to the client."

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH

For the Police Department project, young adults will primarily be inputting information into a program called Atlas GIS 3.0 for Windows, an application designed by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Strategic Mapping Integrators (SMI). Atlas lets users display, edit and analyze information -- from a database or spreadsheet -- on a map. It combines a database management system with presentation, map editing , drawing and reporting tools, allowing the user to visualize data.

In this case, information will be entered by the kids to create a neighborhood map that displays crimes as