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Consider the daunting odds of redirecting the lives of the young men involved in Chicago’s gun violence.

The neighborhoods they live in accounted for 30% of the homicides in Chicago in 2018. Shootings in those neighborhoods are an everyday thing.

Many of these young men, the shooters, have been shooting victims themselves previously, and more than 80 percent have lost a family member to gun violence. Most have had some involvement with the criminal justice system, whether an arrest, a stay in jail or time in prison.

Given statistics like this, which tell a story of total immersion in a subculture of violence, it’s no wonder that researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab are excited by the early success of READI Chicago, a two-year-old program that has focused on turning around the lives of men in five communities — North Lawndale, Austin, West Garfield Park, Englewood and West Englewood — who are at high risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

READI, which stands for Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, provides the men with 18 months of paid employment — for instance, on neighborhood cleanup crews — and assistance in finding permanent employment. Most importantly, as WBEZ reported last week, the men take part in intensive sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy to learn how to avoid volatile, potentially deadly situations.

In other words, the participants learn to think twice and look ahead. They change old ways of thinking. They learn to avoid picking up a gun and ending an argument with a bullet.

“It’s not enough to just tell someone to put their gun down and give them a job,” said Eddie Bocanegra of Heartland Alliance, which runs the program. “We have to tackle an individual’s psyche and behavior patterns.”

The early results?

Among men who were identified as high-risk by the Crime Lab and given the chance to participate, 51% signed up. Of those men, 60% still were involved in the program — working a job and engaged in the counseling after a year.

Those numbers might seem underwhelming, but they are much higher than expected, especially for such a hard-to-reach population, Crime Lab Senior Research Director Max Kapustin told us.

“When we first started the program, there were a lot of unanswered questions. Most specifically, would it keep men safe and alive?” Kapustin said. ”But there were also practical questions. Could we build a program they would want to participate in? Could we even find them? We now have some data to show the answer is ‘yes.’”

The program is not inexpensive, at a cost of $20,000 per year for each person enrolled. But if READI Chicago proves effective in the long run, helping to reduce violent crimes rates and setting lives on more productive paths, it will have been worth it. It sure beats the price tag for a year-long stay in an Illinois prison: $38,000.

At bottom, the aim of READI Chicago is to get these young men to see a future for themselves and more fully appreciate the consequences of their decisions. That may seem obvious, but in the real world of Chicago’s most hopeless streets, where violence often is seen as the only viable solution to a problem, it is not necessarily obvious at all.

Bocanegra offers the example of a young participant in READI Chicago who decided not to retaliate against the man suspected of shooting him in the leg.

“He told me, ‘Any other time, Eddie, I would have gone and shot this dude up,’” Bocanegra said. “He’s someone with two gun convictions already. But he’s now pausing and reflecting on the consequences. We’re seeing that difference with a lot of guys.”

Heartland is seeking public funding for READI, but taxpayer money will be hard to come by at a time when the city and state are struggling financially. We would hope that private foundations step up and keep helping out.

And in the long run, if additional research bears out the Crime Lab’s initial findings, it would be unconscionable to allow this simple and common-sense corrective to gun violence to fold for lack of stable public funding.

Chicago recently made headlines for going more than 24 hours without a shooting. Can you imagine? What should be taken for granted — nobody kills anybody on any given day — was a cause for celebration.

We believe in taking gun offenders off the streets. Lock them up.

We believe more, though, that the long-term solution to Chicago’s gun violence lies in creating a psychologically healthy, life-affirming urban culture — one that holds out opportunities for all — in which fewer young men want to pick up a gun in the first place.

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Source of original article:John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (
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