PREPARED TESTIMONY BEFORE
THE HOUSE JUDICIARY SUBCOMMITTEE ON
CRIME, TERRORISM, AND HOMELAND SECURITY
MAKING COMMUNITIES SAFER: YOUTH VIOLENCE AND GANG
INTERVENTIONS THAT WORK
David M. Kennedy
Center for Crime Prevention and Control
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
899 10th Ave.
New York, NY 10019
I would like to begin by offering my sincere thanks to
Chairman Scott, and to the committee as a whole, for holding this hearing and
allowing me to be a part of it. Our
topic today is profoundly important.
Individual lives, the trajectory of families and communities, and in a very
real way the success of the American experiment are at stake. We cannot continue as we have been with
respect to gangs, gang violence, and the communities most affected by
both. Gangs and our response to gangs
alike have grave implications. The lives
of an individual and of a community can be destroyed by gang violence. But those lives can also be destroyed by the demonization of offenders and what follows in its wake,
such as well-intentioned but profligate law enforcement; by the demonization of law enforcement and what follows in its
wake, such as the toxic “stop snitching” thug culture; and by the shortcomings
of well-intentioned prevention
and intervention programs that simply cannot rise to the challenges they face. Getting this right is crucial.
Getting it right means a new way of thinking and acting. I am now persuaded that no amount of ordinary
law enforcement, no amount of ordinary intervention, and no amount of ordinary
prevention will get us what we want and need.
I do my work amongst extraordinary people: police officers and
prosecutors, gang outreach workers, social service providers, parents, community
elders, ex-offenders. They work with
profound seriousness and commitment. But
it does not solve the problem, and I think it never will. We could put 100 times more gang members in
prison, or fund 100 times the number of prevention programs, and that would not
work either. At its very best, our
traditional framework for addressing this issue is simply inadequate.
There is now more than ample evidence that there is a different
and far more successful framework. My
simplest and most profound message today is that we know, today, how to address this problem: in a way that saves
lives, reduces incarceration, strengthens communities, bridges racial divides,
and improves the lives of offenders and ex-offenders. The evidence has been accumulating for over a
decade and is now extremely persuasive.
In 1996, the famous “Boston Miracle” cut youth homicide by two-thirds and
homicide city-wide by half. It was not a miracle, it was work, and time would
reveal that when the work stopped the miracle did also. But the work itself was both simple and
profound. Violence and drug activity in
troubled neighborhoods is caused predominantly by a remarkably small and active
number of people locked in group dynamics on the street: gangs, drug crews, and
the like. Boston assembled law enforcement, social service providers,
and community actors – parents, ministers, gang outreach workers, neighborhood
associations, ex-offenders, and others – into a new partnership that created
sustained relationships with violent groups.
The partners stood together and spoke with one voice face-to-face with
gang members: that the violence was wrong and had to stop; that the community
needed them alive and out of prison and with their loved ones; that help was
available to all who would take it; and that violence would be met with clear,
predictable, and certain consequences.
There are many myths about Boston. It was not
draconian; there were very few arrests, and most enforcement used ordinary
state law and probation supervision. It
did not wrap every at-risk youth in services and support; we did not have the
resources or the capacity to do that. It
did not rely primarily on law enforcement, or services, or the churches; until
the full partnership and strategy were created, no single group was very
effective. But with the new approach,
within existing law, using existing resources, everything changed. The first face-to-face meeting with gang
members took place in May of 1996. By
the fall, the streets were almost quiet.
At its worst, in 1990, the city had 152 homicides, and averaged around
100 for most of the next six years. In
1997, the first full year after Operation Ceasefire went into effect, it had
43. In 1999, it had 31.
The approach worked just as well elsewhere. Minneapolis was next – in the summer of 1996, there were 42
homicides. Minneapolis began its work over the winter, and in the summer of
1997, there were eight. The Indianapolis Violence Reduction Partnership
was launched in 1998; an evaluation co-authored by Edmund McGarrell,
now the director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of
Michigan, showed reductions in homicide city-wide of 40%, and of robberies and
gun assaults in one of its most dangerous neighborhoods of 49%. In Stockton, California Operation Peacekeeper, implemented in late 1997, cut
homicide among Hispanic gangs by about three-quarters. In Rochester, New York, gang violence fell by two-thirds between 2004 and
2005. In Chicago, a project implemented under the auspices of the
Justice Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods and evaluated by researchers at
the University of Chicago and Columbia University cut homicide in violent neighborhoods by 37%. In Lowell, Massachusetts a strategy adapted to Asian gangs shut down shooting
almost entirely. In Nassau County, Long Island, the strategy has been effective against a gang
problem that includes the notorious MS-13 network.
In High Point, North Carolina, in Congressman Cobles’s
district, a parallel approach aimed at drug markets has virtually eliminated overt
drug activity, violent crime is down over 20% citywide, and a rich community
partnership is working – often successfully – to help former drug dealers
regain their lives. Inspired by High Point, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Raleigh have all followed suit, as have Newburgh, New York and Providence, Rhode Island, with others on the way.
in Chairman Scott’s district, a partnership began meeting with gangs city-wide
in October of last year. I spoke with
police department officials last week, before being invited to this hearing,
and they are seeing the striking changes we have come to expect. Last year at this time there had been fifteen
homicides in Richmond. This year,
there have been four. Robberies with
firearms are down 42%; firearm assaults are down 53%. I am working with a team in Cincinnati, in Congressman Chabot’s district, and with US
Attorney William Lipscomb in Milwaukee, in Congressman Sensenbrenner’s district, and I will
say to them what I have said to their constituents: we are now essentially
certain, from years of experience, that if the work is done seriously, the
results will follow.
This is not an unalloyed success story. Not all jurisdictions have implemented the
strategies properly. Many that have, including
Boston, the first and still best-known site, have let
effective interventions fall apart (notably, Boston has recently expressed its commitment to reinstating
the approach in the face of a spiraling homicide rate). This has highlighted the need for attention
to institutionalization and sustainability, an issue that more recent efforts
are making a priority and that is being greatly assisted by the growing
currency of the approach among law enforcement and other practitioners and in
affected communities. Frameworks for
adapting the strategy to the most demanding jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles, need to be developed, tested, and refined. And the theory of the gang strategy – that
cities have basic gang dynamics that need to be addressed as a whole – has made
it impossible to set aside offenders, gangs, or neighborhoods as “controls”,
thus foreclosing the strongest random-assignment social science evaluations.
The accumulated evidence, however, is now compelling. City after city has gotten the same kind of results. The strongest evaluation, a sophisticated quasiexperimental design used by the Chicago and Columbia researchers, shows the same kind of impact as the first
city-wide studies. The approach has been
endorsed by both the Clinton Administration, through its Strategic Approach to
Community Safety Initiative, and the Bush Administration, through its flagship
Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative
and by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA). When Richmond had its first offender call-in early last year,
former Virginia US Attorney Paul McNulty, now deputy attorney general, traveled
back to Richmond to address the gang members personally. It has been endorsed by groups as diverse as
Fight Crime Invest in Kids, in a report presented by law enforcement legend
by the Children’s Defense Fund;
and by the National Urban League.
The story thus far is only a beginning. The Boston work is now over ten years old, and much has been
learned during that time. The basic
approach has always consisted of three essential elements: law enforcement,
social service providers, and communities, all directly engaged with
offenders. The most recent work, begun
in High Point, North
Carolina, has shown
us how extraordinarily important the community is, particularly what I have
come to think of as “the moral voice of the community”. In the High Point work, we for the first time faced squarely the toxic,
and generally unspoken and unspeakable, racial narratives that saturate these
issues. When law enforcement feels that
communities have utterly lost their moral compass, they will not think to work
with or influence communities. When
communities feel that law enforcement is part of a conspiracy to destroy them,
they will not think to work with or influence law enforcement. When offenders are seen as primitive superpredators to be “weeded” and “exiled”, neither law
enforcement nor communities will think to work with or influence offenders. When networks of offenders tell each other
that they are not afraid of prison, not afraid to die, and
have to shoot those who disrespect them, then they will act accordingly.
But I know, from decades of this work, that law
enforcement desperately wishes to help, that communities desperately want to be
safe and productive, and that virtually nobody wants to go to prison or
die. This is the transformative lesson
of the High Point work: that none of us likes what is going on. Law enforcement does not want to endlessly
arrest and imprison. Communities do not
want to live with violence and fear. Gang
members and drug dealers love their families and their friends and want good
things for them. Everybody wants those
who will take help to have it. Everybody
wants the truly dangerous to be controlled.
We do not think we are of one mind, but in the most important ways, we
In High Point,
law enforcement spoke honestly to communities: that enforcement was not
succeeding, and they knew it; that they had never meant to do harm through relentless
enforcement, but had come to realize that they had; that they would like to act
differently. Communities looked inward
and realized that in their anger over historic and present ills, they had not
made it clear to their own young people that gang and drug activity was wrong
and deeply damaging to the community.
Both law enforcement and community came to understand that what they
were dealing with was not so much depraved individuals
as it was out-of-control peer, group, and street dynamics. So when the partnership met with High Point’s drug dealers, the community voice was clear and
amazingly powerful. Scores of community
members, including many immediate family, told the dealers that they were
loved, needed, vital to the future of the community, would be helped: but were
doing wrong, hurting themselves and others, and had to stop. Overwhelmingly, they heard, and they did. Law enforcement was uncompromising that
continued criminality would bring sure consequences, but very few had to be
arrested subsequently, and many are now living very different lives. And offenders, communities, and law
enforcement see each other in very different ways than they did only a short
This is transformational.
Gang violence and drug crime is an obscenity, but so is mass incarceration. It is important that at risk youth get help,
but it is equally important that seasoned offenders get help. It is important to have firm law enforcement,
but it is even more important to have firm community standards. It is important that law enforcement take
action when the dangerous will not stop, and that the community supports them
when they do. We now know that all of
that can be brought to pass: within existing law, within existing resources,
and remarkably quickly. This is not just
about crime prevention; it is about redemption and reconciliation. Last week in Raleigh, Dr. David Forbes,
pastor at Christian Faith Baptist Church and chair of the city’s Lost
Generation Task Force, stood in front of a phalanx of attentive drug dealers drawn
from one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods and said to them that they
hailed from the cradle of civilization, that the blood of kings and
mathematicians ran in their veins, and that the community needed them to live
up to that and would help them to do so.
Police officers watched approvingly and lent their own voices of
support: and stayed after the formal meeting ended to have dinner with the
dealers. A few years ago this would have
been unimaginable; in most places it still is.
But it is real.
I want to say again that I cannot imagine any scale of
investment in traditional activities, or even the starkest increase in legal
sanctions, producing these results. But
we can do this today, immediately. If,
ten years ago, the medical community had discovered a way to reduce breast
cancer deaths among middle-class white women by 70%, every hospital in the
country would now be using that approach.
We have learned something that profound about
this kind of crime problem. We should
act like it.
The demand for these interventions is tremendous. Currently there is a
relatively small (but growing) number of researchers and practitioners who
understand the underlying principles, have successfully implemented the
strategies, and who continue to refine the basic approach. The logic of the approach is now quite well
developed, as is its application in meaningfully different circumstances (west
coast gangs vs. loose drug crews, for example); key analytic and organizational
steps necessary for implementation; supporting aspects such as data and
administrative systems; places in the process where errors are likely to be
made; accountability structures to ensure institutionalization and
sustainability; and the like. This is
not a “cookbook” process, but the basic path and how to manage it is quite well
At the same time, the demand vastly outstrips current
capacity to address it. New
interventions are primarily driven by isolated researchers operating in “Johnny
Appleseed” mode, working with individual
jurisdictions to address their local problems.
These researchers cannot begin to respond to even the requests that come
to them directly. There is also increasing
attention to these approaches from national groups such as the Urban League and
the Children’s Defense Fund. These
demands cannot be met. When EOUSA held a
two-day conference on the High Point strategy at the National Advocacy Center
in Columbia, South Carolina in January of this year, some 200 people came from
all over the country; many left committed to doing the work and are calling for
help, but we have no way to give it to them.
There is no larger framework in place to “go to scale”:
to help implement the approaches where they are needed, learn from the constant
refinements and innovations that occur at the local level, address key issues
such as sustainability, and enhance the state of the art. The Justice Department’s Project Safe
Neighborhoods, which strongly endorses these strategies, has gone some distance
toward supporting these needs, but additional focused and very practical help
to jurisdictions nationally is badly needed.
A national effort to go to scale is entirely
possible. It would have something like
the following elements:
- A national set of “primary” jurisdictions,
distributed regionally and chosen to incorporate the range of gang issues
(i.e., west coast gangs, Chicago gangs, MS-13, drug crews);
- Close, continuing support from the current pool
of experienced researchers and practitioners to work with researchers and
practitioners in these jurisdictions to help them implement the strategies
- Regular convening of teams from the primary
jurisdictions, teams from a larger set of “secondary” jurisdictions, the
core pool of researchers and practitioners, and a larger pool of
“secondary” researchers and practitioners.
In these sessions, the basic strategies would be explained,
implementation and implementation issues addressed; core technical
assistance provided; on-the-ground experience from the primary sites
shared and analyzed; innovations identified and shared; and key issues
needing more detailed attention identified.
- Key documents such as implementation guides,
research and assessment templates, process histories, case studies,
evaluations, “lessons learned”, and the like developed and
distributed. These could be
bolstered with more or less real-time websites supporting implementation,
answering common questions, presenting site findings and progress, noting
local innovations, etc.
- As the “primary” sites solidified, the focus
could shift to the “secondary” sites, which would now be well prepared to
undertake their own initiatives.
Horizontal exchanges between sites by a now considerably larger
pool of experienced researchers, law enforcement, service providers, and
community actors would now be possible.
Continued convenings, or perhaps a series
of regional convenings, would support the work
in the new sites, address issues arising in the original sites, and allow
the national community working on these issues to learn from local
experience. This “seeding” process
could continue as long as necessary to “tip” national practice to regarding
these strategies as the norm. The
large number of actors participating in the effort would add to this
through their natural participation in local and national discussions,
writing and publishing, professional activities, and the like.
- In this setting, a core research agenda,
addressing for example new substantive crime problems and
institutionalization and accountability issues, could be framed and
pursued. Findings could be
translated quite directly into action on a national scale.
Funding for this effort would be necessary for the
technical assistance, convening, documentation/dissemination, and site exchange
components. While additional funding for
operational elements would of course be welcome, experience shows that
redirecting existing resources in alignment with the basic strategy can produce
dramatically enhanced results.
We have learned profound lessons about how to address gangs,
gang violence, the drug-driven crime that invariably
travels alongside: and, blessedly, how to begin to address the racial divides
that undergird and perpetuate all of it. We can do better, and we must.