Chicago: Murder, Inc. USA (but it doesn’t have to be)

From my hometown of Chicago comes the sobering news that the epidemic of gun violence continues unabated. The murder rate here currently is 28% higher than what it was at this time last year. On Thursday night, 19 people in the city were victims of gun violence; last night, an additional 17 people were shot, 4 of them fatally.

The reasons for the dramatic spike in gun violence have been debated; surely the fact that this is a city, where, it is said, you can get your hands on a gun “as quick as you can get a burger at a fast-food restaurant” has something to do with it. Experts seem to believe that gang wars are the major culprit, though in a sense that merely begs the question as to why gangs are so much more firmly entrenched here than in, say, New York.

Politically, gun control efforts seem to be off the table, at least for now, and that of course is a national tragedy. But fortunately, there are other tools that have been proven to be effective in ameliorating the gun violence problem. Recently, my friend Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago, co-directed a rigorous, large-scale study of a violence prevention program for at-risk youth in the Chicago Public Schools. The program consisted of mentoring and group counseling, and by the end of the study program participants

showed a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests during the intervention. Participating youth also became more engaged with school — an impact that grew even larger in the year after the program ended.

Sometimes, social programs that initially appear to effective never live up to their early promise, because they end up being too expensive, or too difficult to replicate. But according to Pollack, that does not appear to be true of this program. He says that this program “remarkable” due to its “relatively limited number of contact hours, its scalability, and the relatively low cost”:

On average, each program participant had about 13 contact hours with the program. Because it was developed as a manualized intervention, the program can be replicated and brought to scale fairly easily.

One piece of good news here is that Pollack and his colleagues have received additional funding to expand the program. The bad news, however, is that, sadly, violence prevention programs are clearly not priority for the Emanuel administration, which continues, even in the midst of this violence epidemic, to subject such programs with the austerity axe. (I have an extensive grudge list of reasons why Mayor Emanuel is unbeloved of me and this is definitely one of them).

Hopefully, though, the word will get out about these programs, and they will eventually be fine-tuned and funded to scale, so that they can achieve maximum effectiveness. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that anyone who interested either in this subject or in film check out the recent documentary, The Interrupters, which was made by Steve James’ Kartemquin films (of Hoop Dreams fame), and which looks at a different gang intervention anti-violence program in Chicago, one in which former gang members themselves do the intervening. It’s a gut-wrenching, deeply sad, and extraordinarily powerful film that tells a great, and shamefully neglected, American story, and does it brilliantly. You won’t soon forget the three former gang members the film profiles, each one of them alone worthy of a novel. The film broke box office records when it played at theaters in Chicago last year, and no wonder — it was one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in many a year. See it, and you’ll have a sense of the enormity of the problem we’re up against. You’ll also be moved by the many brave and dedicated people who are struggling so desperately to turn things around.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee