Out of growing frustration with futile efforts to reduce urban gun violence by arresting young people and locking them up, some federal and city programs are taking a public health approach — using multiagency prevention and treatment strategies to address underlying sources of violence.

Since at least the 1980s, which saw an alarming escalation in handgun homicides among 15- to 24-year-olds, U.S. efforts to reduce urban street violence have emphasized law enforcement. While a tough-minded focus on criminalization and punishment may be in line with public sentiment, research indicates that these perceptions and policies have been off the mark.

In 2011, Massachusetts launched its Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI), which provides support to urban communities and offers services to young men ages 14–24 who are, in the state’s words, “at proven risk of shooting someone or being shot.” As part of this initiative, Massachusetts also funded an evaluation team — led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) with partners WestEd and Justice Resource Institute (JRI) — to find and develop evidence-based guidance on violence reduction.

The team summarized findings from its initial scan of relevant research in two reports: What Works to Prevent Urban Violence Among Proven Risk Young Men? and a companion piece, Strategies to Prevent Urban Violence. The findings provide substantial support for the public health approach and shed light on the specifics of what makes this approach most effective.

Evidence of impact

The evaluation team systematically searched the research literature for sound evaluations of violence-reduction programs that, similar to SSYI, deployed multiple components, rather than relying solely on law enforcement to curb serious violence such as homicide and shootings. The researchers further targeted only those relatively recent programs (begun since 1996) whose impact had been evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental methods.

When they discovered that no one had previously done a cross-study summary of studies that met these criteria, the team created its own summary focused on 11 studies that met its rigorous criteria. They were surprised by the consistency of findings across these studies.

“We expected the research on these 11 programs would show a wide range of effectiveness, with some being successes and some failures,” says Anthony Petrosino, a WestEd senior research associate who specializes in crime and justice research. “But much to our surprise, nearly all the studies came to the same conclusion.” Specifically, 10 of the 11 programs that took a public health approach were successful in terms of “achieving sizeable drops (10 percent or more) in homicides and other violence among youth involved with guns and gangs.”

This was a significant discovery, Petrosino notes. “The results suggest that cities or states that are not implementing similar kinds of public health strategies may be missing the chance to reduce street violence substantially.”

Although law enforcement had a role in all of the programs, the multiagency approach leveraged resources and expertise from other sectors, such as education and housing, faith-based groups, nonprofit service providers, private businesses, and community members. This approach enabled street outreach workers to guide youth to education opportunities, job training, social services, and other supports that offered alternatives to gangs and violence.

Street outreach and multiagency collaboration in action

SSYI identifies young men at greatest risk of engaging in gun violence and assigns outreach workers to help them access education, occupational training, and social services and support. Because many of the outreach workers come from the same neighborhoods and know the culture of the streets, they can more easily gain the trust of high-risk youths and strengthen their fragile futures. In Boston, for example, to end the pattern of retaliation shootings and other gang activity, street outreach workers now go directly to hospitals to talk with gunshot victims when they are most vulnerable and open to change and attempt to get these young men involved in the SSYI program.

By collaborating with law enforcement, mental health centers, churches, and families, outreach workers also provide a comprehensive safety net that supports the men on multiple levels and also extends to their families and communities.

“[The approach] has huge implications across the board, and these communities are now organizing themselves to address street violence and related issues,” says Sarah Guckenburg, a senior research associate with WestEd who has been studying the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, as it implements strategies supported by the research. “The violence in these communities affects not only the individual but also entire neighborhoods, entire families, entire generations.”

Learning hard lessons from Lawrence

Art McCabe has seen the devastation wrought by street violence firsthand. As manager of community development for Lawrence, he has watched as extreme poverty, joblessness, and violent crime among the city’s largely immigrant population wrecked families and neighborhoods.

In 2012, McCabe used an SSYI grant to create the Lawrence Youth Team, which aims to pull together community members and resources to reduce crime. The team — whose members have various professional qualifications, as well as a personal history of gang membership or other involvement in street life — enlists law enforcement personnel to identify the most violence-prone youths. The interagency rapport is so strong that team specialists sometimes work side by side with police during conflicts to try to keep young people out of the criminal justice system.

“We’ve conducted a lot of cross-training workshops for various organizations and have developed good working relationships with them all, but we also spent a lot of time working in the streets getting to know people,” says McCabe. “We’ve also worked with the secondary population: the families and teenage mothers and infants.”

The Lawrence Youth Team coordinates a jobs program that includes paying youth to clean up parks, which helps them engage with their neighbors in positive ways as well as repair neglected community resources. Educational assistance also prepares the youth for high school equivalency exams and college.

“A key part of the program is being consistent. These kids have never had consistency in their lives. They know there is somebody in our program they can count on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Listening to the voices of experience

Hearing from someone who shared the same kinds of struggles growing up can resonate with youth. For example: The Lawrence Youth Team’s chief street outreach worker spent 11 years in prison and led one of the city’s major gangs during the 1990s. When he tells current gang members and “wannabes” how he watched his son grow up through a Plexiglas window, his plea to build a better life is grounded in his firsthand experience of the high costs of street violence. Similarly compelling is the story of a caseworker on the Lawrence Team who had two kids by the time she was 16, yet managed to graduate from college. When she speaks about education’s transformative power, her message carries instant credibility.

This year, about 40 participants in the Lawrence program will become neighborhood emissaries working with community and faith-based organizations to reach other gang-involved youths and help stabilize some of the poorest areas of the city. Some of the young men will move into permanent jobs in these organizations, city departments, and the private sector.

“A lot of kids want to give back if you give them a chance,” says McCabe. “This way the kids feel like they’re doing something valuable, and you expand the capacity of the city.”

McCabe acknowledges that progress with this high-risk population takes a great deal of time and effort. The 131 youths currently in the Lawrence program fall along a continuum of commitment, he says, with some continuing to “lead a double life” of gang activity alternated with responsible behavior.

Looking ahead

While the SSYI researchers’ cross-study analysis found that programs similar to those in Massachusetts have been successful with remarkable consistency, it is too soon to know the extent to which SSYI itself will have a positive impact. The evaluation team is now studying whether the cities participating in the SSYI initiative outperform comparable non-participating communities.

Meanwhile, the team will continue to follow the work in Lawrence and other Massachusetts cities in order to spread knowledge about what really works to stop violent crime in America’s urban centers. In particular, researchers are focusing on the complexities of a multiagency approach to addressing violence and are looking for ways their research might support the street outreach workers who appear to be key to the violence reduction efforts that have proven effective.