Friday, December 28, 2018

A dozen shootings per day. Every day. More than 1,300 lives getting snuffed out in two years’ time. Random bombardments of gang bullets striking fear into the hearts of Chicago families. Innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire. Innocent children dying.

Chicagoans know that this is not the character of our city. We know we are better than this. Now, it is time to prove it.

While it’s true that law enforcement has a big role to play in confronting this problem – and I have outlined major changes to the CPD – Chicago’s outrageous homicide rate cannot be solved through policing alone. We need to look deeper. We need to focus on why the shots get fired in the first place.

People are not born with some natural instinct to commit senseless violence. We do not come out of the womb with a yearning to grab a gun and squeeze the trigger. The very idea is ludicrous.

The fact is that most of the people responsible for gun violence in Chicago are making bad choices for real reasons. Acknowledging a person’s life background, family challenges and lack of alternatives is not to excuse the commission of serious crimes. It is facing the reality of what’s driving much of the problem.

Here’s the good news: A movement is finally afoot in Chicago to confront the human factor that drives a ton of these shootings. Programs like READI Chicago and Chicago CRED are using a new model that complements the law enforcement piece with a comprehensive engagement strategy. The idea is to save lives – by changing lives. These organizations are going straight to the core of the problem, instead of trying to solve it from the outside. If you stop for a moment to think about this strategy, it seems almost too obvious; like we should have tried this decades ago.

READI is an acronym for Rapid Employment And Development Initiative, and that’s what it does: gets people jobs and helps them develop as human beings. But the approach they take is a scientific one – driven first by data, then determination.

READI starts by using a predictive analytics assessment created by the University of Chicago Crime and Poverty Labs. The model identifies individuals who are most at-risk to be involved in gun violence – and it is working.

Ninety percent of the individuals that READI targets for empowerment are African-American and 93% are between the ages of 18-32. Fifty-three percent have prior convictions they’ve served prison time for, and 47% reported that they had also been a victim of violent crime.

READI launched its program in the fall of 2017. It coalesced six outreach organizations in Chicago’s four highest-risk neighborhoods – North Lawndale, Austin, West Garfield Park and Greater Englewood. The goal was to connect 500 individuals to the program over 18 months. The outreach workers in the coalition are men who’ve had the same kinds of experiences as the target individuals they’re trying to get to “yes.” Even so, this is one of the hardest parts.

All of the individuals who make that decision to enter the READI program engage in paid employment 25 hours a week. They are also required to participate in cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching and skills building.

In its first 14 months, READI reached out to 672 potential participants – and engaged 440 of them. Perhaps the biggest number of all: 330 of those folks are currently engaged in jobs and developmental therapy. And they take pride in their work.

Most participants are working on crews doing neighborhood cleanup. They’re getting a paycheck, but just as importantly, many of them say that they’re feeling self-esteem. Purpose. Pride. Often for the first time.

This is a large part of what READI and Chicago CRED are all about. The caring component is just as important as the opportunity factor. Evelyn Diaz, President of Heartland Alliance, puts it this way: “As a society, we have so demonized this population. But they just want what most people want, which is a little stability and safety, and they want their kids to be safe.”

Diaz knows that READI still has a lot to prove. As good as the early numbers are, after the 18-month program has ended, READI and the Crime Lab will evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

The initiative started out using only private money, with corporations and philanthropic organizations quickly pitching in more than $30 million. But to scale up programs like READI and CRED, they will need public backing.

As mayor of Chicago, I will invest $50 million in programs like READI and CRED, and work to leverage another $100 million from state and federal resources. We absolutely must invest in our city and in our people to drastically reduce Chicago’s dire homicide rate.

If this seems like a high price to pay, Chicago is currently paying far more. A report by the Center for American Progress estimates that Chicago spends $1.1 billion annually on direct costs associated with violent crime (homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault). This includes the cost of policing, prosecution, incarceration, medical costs, and the loss of economic productivity and wages for the victims and the incarcerated. They further estimate the intangible costs of crime – pain and suffering and loss of life – to be $5.3 billion. Reducing violent crime by even 10 percent would save over $500 million a year.

Every young person has unrealized potential. While it’s true that not all of the people these programs are targeting will reach for that full potential, we now know for a fact that plenty of them will. They will accept a helping hand – and then work to achieve a different life.

This strategy has the potential to be a win-win-win for Chicago: we lift our people up, we reduce many of the social ills that are plaguing our neighborhoods, and most importantly, we save lives. It is time. Our city is READI.