Promising Strategies that Help Prevent Youth and Gang Violence

By John "Jack" Calhoun, RYI
Posted on October 30, 2013, in Challenging Kids

Thirteen California cities have learned from each other, sharing successes and solutions, giving moral and tangible support to each other, taking tested strategies from multiple sources to address long-standing problems, and making inroads on the persistent problems of youth and gang violence that have plagued neighborhoods in each city. Their strategies offer a roadmap, useful ideas, and insights that can help many other cities reduce violence, strengthen communities and neighborhoods, and build lasting partnerships. 


In early 2007, the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (IYEF) and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) launched a unique initiative to reduce youth and gang-related violence and victimization in 13 California cities -- the nationally unprecedented California Cities Gang Prevention Network. The participating cities (Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Oxnard, Richmond, Sacramento, Salinas, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton) pledged to forge and implement comprehensive citywide plans that interweave prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry and through cross-city peer learning, identify and implement best practices and help initiate state and federal policy changes to support local practice.

The California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation have provided support for the Network throughout its existence from inception in 2007. Additional support has been provided by the East Bay Community Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the Richmond Children's Fund and the Kaiser Foundation, Northern California Region.

Factors driving the Network's creation included:

• Increasing gang violence and community fear

• Dual victims: individuals and communities (and in some cases, entire cities)

• The need to get in front of the issue before fear alone drove the response (e.g. "urban terrorists," "super predators")

• Recognition that many gang-plagued communities were struggling in isolation, and that by pooling experience and expertise they could give each other greater resources and a sense of hope and momentum

• The opportunity for cities to get beyond isolated program responses to comprehensive citywide strategies that involve all aspects of their communities

• The chance to engage such larger issues as family support, pre-school education, jobs, and hope

• The opportunity to influence policy at the state and national level on the basis of the lessons they have learned

We set five goals for our work:

• Reduce youth and gang crime and help build communities that don't produce crime

• Create or enhance a local network (or task force or commission) that changes how the city does business

• Develop a city-wide plan, a strategy that blends prevention, intervention, suppression, and re-entry

• Create a vital statewide network among participating cities

• Identify and advocate for state and federal policies that can support and strengthen the work of these cities

Moving into its fifth year, the Network can point with confidence to core principles that can lead to promising results. What we have learned stems from both stumbles and successes; the eleven principles below summarize what has proved necessary for effective action.

Eleven Guiding Principles 

First, the mayor and chief of police have to lead together. Ideally this leadership should occur on three levels: moral, conceptual and bureaucratic. San Bernardino's Mayor Patrick Morris' made clear his moral starting point: "Mynisha Crenshaw, an eight-year old girl was killed by a stray bullet while eating her Thanksgiving dinner. This is an outrage. My city will not tolerate this. It must stop." His city identified the most crime-infested, despairing 20-square block area in his city, the area reporting the highest rates of social pathology - crime, truancy, abuse, substandard housing, parental neglect and sub-standard housing. For six Saturdays, Mayor Morris flipped burgers and roasted hot dogs on the worst corner in the now-called "Phoenix" area. He greeted people, letting them know how much he cared about them: "I am Patrick Morris, your mayor...I am here to help...together we can stop this violence." On the conceptual level, he spurred a planning process. On the bureaucratic front, he reconfigured his staff, creating neighborhood teams of policy, schools, child welfare workers and the district attorney. Violent crime dropped more than 20 percent in the “Operation Phoenix” area. Most telling are comments from residents – civic measures, if you will: "My kids can play in the streets for the first time”...”All I wanted to do was to move, to get out of here. Now I want to stay."

Second, service provider communities and law enforcement must see each other as essential, as natural parts of a whole, not at odds. Where there is mutual caricature, it doesn't work: providers can view law enforcement as "hard hats," people who "like to put away kids." Via a vis police, providers can be caricatured as "soft...bleeding hearts..." Rather, this work must be seen as a whole, as parenting where we both set limits and nurture. The Ceasefire (or Call-In) program, developed by Professor David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice beautifully captures this. The Call-In summons the community's most chronic offenders to a group meeting where law enforcement makes clear the potential consequences for continued behavior and the provider community offers services. Finally a community member appears, usually one who has suffered victimization. All plead with the offenders to make the right choice, to take advantage of available services. David Kennedy states it bluntly: "We're here to help you. If you won't let us help you, we will stop you."

Why is it that when families collapse, neighborhoods weaken, schools fail to educate and the economy fails to produce jobs, we turn to law enforcement to save us? Nothing could be more short-sighted and wrong-headed. Abraham Heschel, one of the 20th Century's leading theologians said in his book Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," "In regard to cruelties committed in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." The blame game is the cheapest game. It is a way of avoiding responsibility, of avoiding the hard work. We all have a role to play, and at the core of the work the task is to convince people that they can and must play a part: parents, civic associations, community and faith-based entities, city departments, business organizations, hospitals, schools and service providers. Roles differ, but undergirding community values must not: cops patrol and arrest, but they can and do argue passionately for prevention and intervention ("We cannot arrest our way out of this..."); and those running prevention and intervention programs should refuse to tolerate such unacceptable behavior as kids packing guns or kids out on the street at 11:00 at night.

Third, a plan that blends prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry. We tend to be strong in the enforcement arena, as our bulging prison population attests, and we're reasonably good at intervention - afterschool programs, mentoring, drug and alcohol abuse counseling, but the prevention plank - family support, early childhood education, healthy lifestyles, among other things – is usually weak. Why? To see results from prevention takes time, the results are sometimes hard to see, and citizens who are trying to get to work or to get their kids safely to schools are concerned with the immediate, namely, safety: "Don't give me that prevention stuff. Get those thugs off my street." The plan must be developed by key stakeholders and must contain specific actions that can be tracked. Public accountability is paramount, and the prevention dimension, the most difficult to insert and maintain, must be a core element. As a result of the imprisonment binge of the early 1990's, offenders are returning to their old neighborhood in record numbers. Their needs must be addressed as members of the community. 

Fourth, a strategy that falls within a broad vision for the city, a vision that brings others in and that helps to sustain and impel the work. A vision supported by concrete goals and objectives is essential, for the work can falter if crime rates rise. Santa Rosa framed its work this way: Vision: "Reclaim Our Youth for Their Families, Schools, Communities and Futures;" Goal: "Cut Gang Violence in Half in Five Years;" Strategy: “Mobilize and Align Community resources through Gang Prevention, Intervention and Enforcement." The plan should include criminal justice measures, quality of life measures, and some indication that the city is doing business in a different way.

Fifth, a mechanism or an entity, such as the Gang Commission in San Diego, the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force in San Jose, and the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace in Salinas, must be created to keep an eye on the plan. Such entities, which often meet monthly, monitor and track commitments made by the stakeholders: How is the school system doing with its promise to open after school programs? Where are the mentors promised by the Inter-Faith Committee, is the police department fulfilling its commitment to community oriented policing, and has the business community followed up on its promise to provide summer jobs?

Sixth, a point person with dedicated time to assist with planning, identifying and collecting data, and helping the citywide entity track and update the plans.

Seventh, access to and use of a variety of data sources. If communities tap only into criminal justice data, the resulting "comprehensive" plan will tilt toward enforcement. Data from schools, child welfare, public health, housing and employment must be used to ensure a comprehensive picture and thus a comprehensive response.

Eighth, a strong working relationship with the county (or counties) must be developed. Cities sit atop the problems, but many key services - probation, child welfare and public health to name a few - are housed in the counties.

Ninth, such structural issues as over-concentration of liquor stores, easy access to guns and drugs, lax zoning laws and enforcement, absence of family supports, and lack of access to transportation, must be addressed.

Tenth, the plan must not be fixed. It must be reviewed for relevance at least every two years or so. In the face of changing demographics, leadership and economics, the citywide plan must remain flexible and open.

Eleventh, personal relationships must be forged with gang members and wannabees who are wary, who have been burned by relationships with adults in their pasts. When serving as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts,  I'll never forget what a young murderer said to me: "Commissioner Calhoun, I'd rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all."

The Heart of the Problem: Disconnected Youth

Youth prone to violence and gang membership are disconnected from the basic shaping entities of family, neighborhood, school and hope for the future. Every effort must be made to connect them to a positive adult. As Larry Brendtro, Co-founder of Circle of Courage and Scott Larsen, President, Straight Ahead Ministries have pointed out so eloquently in their writings, many such youth are "a-nomic," without name, with no one, except fellow gang members, claiming them. In Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, naming ceremonies are central. If not claimed by parents, neighbors, or the faith community, such kids will be re-named. Thus the Juans, Carlas, Roberts and Bettys become High Boy, Needle, Look Out and Squeak (real names from the Los Angeles gang files). The prophet Isaiah nails the theological and social heart of the work: "I have called thee by name. Thou art mine." 

Who is out there naming and claiming our kids, kids who are literally dying for a relationship but who are almost pathologically unable to risk trust? It may be a therapist, a caseworker or a street worker or Peace Keeper (many of whom who have done time in the criminal justice system). It may be a neighbor. Whoever it is must be willing to risk themselves, to risk a relationship, to risk rejection and to be ready to risk enormous amounts of time. 

The Hardest Task – and the Most Important

I have run a modest-sized non-profit organization in Massachusetts and a national one in Washington D.C. I've served as Commissioner of Youth Services in Massachusetts and as a presidential appointee, running the U.S. Administration for Children Youth and Families. People are often impressed; they frequently comment on what hard work this must have been.

I totally disagree. The policy work, while essential, is not the hardest work. The relational is. We all know this. How many of us are willing to go into the heart of darkness, to risk a relationship with a kid who is desperate to keep you away, terrified that if you get close you will see only garbage, and, like everyone else in his or her life, you will reject that youth.

So underneath the policy, underneath the principles enumerated above, lies the toughest and most important work – convincing kids that they are worthy, that they are valued, that they are loved. This is the heart of the work that our cities and their citizens are challenged to undertake.

Moving Ahead

Over almost six years, hard knocks, a great deal of sharing, site visits, technical assistance and constant exchange of information, Network participants can point to the above as critical elements.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a firm believer in such comprehensive approaches to youth and gang violence, has launched the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention in the six cities of Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Salinas and San Jose (see ). The Province of Alberta, Canada has just launched its path-breaking "Alberta Gang Reduction Strategy," a strategy that shares the Network's core principles (see A complete listing of available resources is available on, and the website of the California Cities Gang Prevention Network ( ). In addition, the National League of Cities has published "Preventing Gang Violence and Building Communities Where Young People Thrive," a manual on developing local networks (


Jack Calhoun


Senior Consultant, National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families
Senior Consultant, U.S. Department of Justice
Author, Hope Matters: the Untold Story of How Faith Works in America; Through the Hourglass: Poems of Life and Love (both available through ).

About John "Jack" Calhoun

Author of "Hope Matters" ; Former U.S. Commissioner, Admin. for Children, Youth & Families Falls Church, Virginia Read John "Jack" Calhoun’s Bio

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