Cities Discuss Plans to Curb Youth Violence at Justice Department Forum

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Pastor Billy Kyles, asked to deliver the keynote address at this week’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, talked to the audience about dreams and dreamers, using the words of Langston Hughes as an undercurrent.

“Hold fast to dreams,” quoted Kyles, who stood on a Memphis balcony with Martin Luther King, Jr. on a tragic April 4 so many years ago. “For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

His words encapsulated the problem that unites all six cities at the two-day summit: Deadly, self-perpetuating violence caused by youths and young adults with no expectations for their own futures.

Johnathon Matthews, who is a 35-year-old high school principal in Detroit, said he recently told a young offender that he wouldn’t make it to 35 himself if he kept going.

“Why would I want to?’” Matthews recalls the young man saying in response.

It is a problem that Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton said King would never have imagined in the 1960s.

“Kids throwing rocks at each other, breaking windows every once in awhile, candy stealing,” Wharton said of the juvenile transgressions that were typical of King’s time. “And we thought that was a problem.”

Before Kyles spoke of lofty ideals at lunch, teams from the six cities – Boston, Chicago, San Jose, Salinas, Detroit, and Memphis – spent the morning presenting some concrete details about their plans to curb youth violence

The Boston team spoke about its family centers, which seek to identify risk points for members of a youth’s family instead of keeping an individualized focus. The centers might start working with a young teen after his first arrest for theft. It would then seek to connect the repeat-offending older brother with a case manager, the mother with housing assistance, and a younger sister with a mentor.

Information sharing is critical to the success of the centers, Mayor Thomas Mennino said, and he suggested that civil rights groups trying to protect that information were getting in the way.

“The ACLU was a creation of the 1960s…we don’t need that right now,” Mennino said to tepid laughter, which subsided when he said, “I mean it.”

“The last thing I want to do is have some kid’s life story on the front page,” Mennino told Youth Today later. “But I’m trying to save kids lives here.”

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee explained how, with scarce dollars in a city struggling to rebuild itself, Detroit worked with the local Skillman Foundation to target services into high-risk areas around five of the city’s high schools. Matthews explained an alternative to suspensions and expulsions that goes into effect April 18.

Common themes among the plans included job training and bringing the business community to the table, and involving youths in the design of local programs. The second day of the summit included speeches by Attorney General Eric Holder, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, and panel discussions on leveraging private investments and moving from the planning phase to implementation.

The Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, which hosted the forum, also funds the Community-Based Violence Prevention Demonstration Program (CBVP), which spent $8.6 million in 2010 to seed projects in Denver, Oakland, Washington and New York. The cities must use the money to develop and implement strategies aimed at curbing youth violence.

President Barack Obama requested $15 million for CBVP in 2012.

The National Forum on Youth Violence was done with limited resources to provide some help to some other cities looking to create collaborative efforts to address violence, said Melodee Hanes, acting deputy administrator for policy at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Hanes said in addition to the forum, Justice will send contracted technical assistance providers to work with the six cities.

Justice is funding outcomes evaluations for the four CBVP sites. The six cities involved with the forum must pay for their own evaluations, but Justice is paying researchers to survey participants about the value of any inter-agency collaboration fostered by this project.