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Turning on a Light, Turning Down the Violence — An Innovative Approach to Gangs

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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July 13, 2009

There was an excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times about an innovative approach officials are pursuing in Los Angeles to curb gang violence. The city’s praiseworthy effort will actually result in an improvement of the lives of residents who live in neighborhoods with a long history of gang activity by fostering a greater sense of community, while decreasing crime and violence levels in the process. The really impressive aspect to this approach is that it doesn’t rely on heavy-handed enforcement tactics or harsh new sentencing laws, but instead the simple step of turning on a light.

The “Summer Night Lights” program is designed to decrease the violence associated with gangs by keeping the lights on until midnight in what the newspaper describes as some of the roughest parks in the city. What started last year with $1 million in private donations and eight parks, has spread to 16 sites this year, with pledges of matching support from city officials.

The program is also supported by law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. In reviewing the positive numbers, it’s really not surprising. The article reported that in 2008, neighborhoods bordering the eight parks involved saw 86 percent fewer homicides and a 17 percent drop in gang-related violence. Additionally, some parks went through the entire summer without one homicide.

We know that young people are often drawn to gangs because of unmet needs and for a sense of connection and community. Too often, the public policy response to this problem has been to push for tougher laws and longer prison sentences. A program like Summer Night Lights demonstrates that by fostering a greater sense community and providing young people with positive outlets, you can greatly reduce the problems and violence that stem from gang activity.

On Wednesday of this week, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime will be holding a hearing on a legislative proposal that rejects the failed approaches of the past in favor of proactively working with young people — the Youth PROMISE Act. The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education Act (Youth PROMISE Act), is bipartisan legislation that provides much needed resources to at-risk communities from across the country that will enable them to engage in comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies to decrease juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang activity.

The legislation currently has 225 cosponsors in the House and nine in the Senate. Please reach out and email your Members of Congress today to let them know of your strong support for the Youth PROMISE Act today.

Programs like Summer Night Lights show that a different way is possible and can succeed. Now is the time for the federal government to step up to the plate!

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