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A Game Plan for Communities Ready to Tackle Gun Violence

Data-informed solutions that prevent rather than punish can break cycles of violence and help neighborhoods heal, and voters support them. They just need to be scaled up.

Four members of the Newark Community Street Team program walking down the street in team T-shirts.
The Newark Community Street Team program, which aims to build relationships for at-risk youth, has been credited with helping the city reduce homicides.
A crisis doesn’t emerge out of nowhere. Our current crisis of gun violence is no exception. High-powered guns are more available than ever. Our collective mental health has been tested by more than two years of isolation, death and division under the pandemic. And low-income households are more precarious than ever as inflation soars. Our young people are suffering. We see it play out in the unprecedented rise of “deaths of despair” by drug overdose and suicide and in a wave of devastating gun violence.

American communities are reeling, and voters are rightly fed up. They want leaders to get a handle on violent crime. They also realize that we can’t punish our way to safety. When asked about public safety, voters prefer funding mental health crisis services and treatment to prisons and jails by a 3-to-1 margin, and voters are twice as likely to support community-based violence prevention than incarceration.

Proven public health solutions that prevent rather than punish also are favored by crime victims and communities most harmed by crime. Many state legislatures are even quietly embracing them. But despite their popularity, common-sense programs are missing in too many communities. And where services exist, they lack funding to help all of those in need.

A new report from our organization, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, offers a blueprint of hope for communities besieged by violent crime and leaders who are ready to address our gun-violence crisis. Scaling Safety charts a course for communities to make smart public safety investments to bridge the “safety gap,” a term for the lack of preventive public safety and healing infrastructure in communities most harmed by violence. We already have data-informed solutions that can break cycles of violence and help victims and neighborhoods heal. They just need to be scaled up.

Programs that address the safety gap are common-sense approaches and include support for crime victims, community-based violence prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and programs for people exiting the justice system.

Model programs are already proving how together we can make everyone safer. Dozens of “trauma recovery centers” across the country, for example, provide community-based, wraparound services to crime victims and measurably improve their odds of healing and regaining stability, lowering a victim’s likelihood of alcohol abuse, homelessness and revictimization. Analyzing the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that just one trauma recovery center, one nonprofit civil legal aid group and 20 emergency shelter beds for domestic violence victims and their children can ensure access to life-changing support to 100,000 residents and break cycles of violence and despair.

As Black men, one the victim of gun violence and the other caught up in a crime as a misguided teen, we could easily have become statistics. Instead, each of us chose to make his life’s work a testament to the power of healing and reconciliation. Through our own healing journeys, we have worked with victims, people with past records, grieving families and violence-ravaged communities.

We have seen what works in the fight against gun violence. The Newark Community Street Team, for example, constitutes a community-led violence prevention program that builds strong, stable relationships with at-risk youth. It is credited with helping the New Jersey city buck national trends and reduce homicides.

We all have a stake in public safety. It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. We all want safe communities where families can live in peace, stability and healing for victims, and for those returning home after serving time to have a second chance to contribute and make good.

Violent crime is an American public health crisis, one that requires public health solutions. Americans understand what has not worked in decades past, and they are ready for a different conversation about public safety that centers on healing and offers hope. We urge elected leaders to embrace common-sense violence prevention and commit to scaling programs that actually make us safer.

Aswad Thomas was nearly killed in a 2009 shooting. Jay Jordan spent seven years in prison following a crime committed as a teen. They are vice president and CEO, respectively, of the Alliance for Safety and Justice.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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