Blog of Rights

Empower Communities and Youth to Reduce Violence

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:44pm

Things are off to a really good start in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, which yesterday held its first hearing of the 111th Congress. The hearing was on "Youth Violence: Trends, Myths and Solutions."

This is an important issue, which often does not get nearly the attention it deserves from our elected leaders, and when it does, harsh sentencing laws usually follow. What was especially refreshing about the hearing were the recommendations from the witnesses, each of whom spoke of the need to support and use evidence-based approaches to reducing levels of youth violence and gang activity through prevention and intervention programs. For a really great example, check out the Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which provide comprehensive educational support and family support to economically disadvantaged children and their parents.

Particularly impressive was Trenton, New Jersey, Police Director (Chief), Irving Bradley. Bradley spoke as a member of the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which is composed of 4,500 police chiefs, sheriffs, other law enforcement leaders, and violence survivors working to prevent crime and violence. He spoke of how critical it is to reach children at young ages, as efforts like child-parent centers work to do. What I thought was especially interesting in his remarks was when he stated that gangs simply fill gaps. It is our collective societal responsibility to make sure such gaps are filled with positive, proactive programs (wow, that's a lot of Ps). To quote Director Bradley –

Law enforcement leaders' commitment to putting dangerous criminals in jail must be matched by Congress' commitment to keep kids from becoming criminals...

Wednesday's hearing follows the recent publication of a great new report from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice entitled Things I Have Seen and Heard: How Educators, Youth Workers and Elected Leaders Can Help Reduce the Damage of Childhood Exposure to Violence in Communities.

Among others suggestions, the authors recommend crafting and supporting local, state and federal legislation that seeks to engage communities and children in constructive activities, such as community improvement projects. They specifically listed Representative Bobby Scott's (D-VA), Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Youth PROMISE Act as being a good example of federal legislation that seeks to empower local communities to pursue prevention approaches to youth violence and gang activity reduction. The ACLU is a strong proponent of this legislation. I was thrilled to hear Representative Scott state at the hearing that he will be reintroducing this important legislation this week, which will also have a Senate-side companion for the first time!

Yesterday's hearing laid a solid foundation in support of promising evidence-based prevention programs that proactively engage both young people and the communities in which they live. With the soon-to-be-reintroduced Youth PROMISE Act in the wings, I'm very hopeful about the potential progress we will see over the next weeks and months.

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