Tonight was the latest "call-in" convened by the Brownsville Anti-Violence Project, our collaboration with Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, the New York Police Department, the Brownsville Partnership and other partners to combat gun crime in Brownsville. The effort builds on an approach that scholars like Tracey Meares and David Kennedy and Tom Tyler have advocated for some time: improving the legitimacy of the criminal justice system by communicating more directly, clearly, and respectfully to the target audience -- in this case, parolees with a history of violent behavior.
The meeting was held at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in the heart of Brownsville. About thirty people (all men, save one) spent an hour listening to a half dozen or so representatives of local law enforcement and social service providers. The law enforcement message, which came from the Brooklyn DA's Office, NYPD, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the US Attorney's Office, was straightforward: we know who you are and where you live...we are watching you...you will not fall between the cracks. Participants were told that because of their violent histories, beat cops had been given their photos and that they would be the focus of special scrutiny, including aggressive prosecution should they be caught with a gun.
While this message was a strong one, it was delivered without rancor. Indeed, many of the law enforcement officials prefaced their remarks by saying that they actively hoped that they would not be called upon to lock up anyone at the table.
The criminal justice players were followed by other voices, including Kai Smith, who served 16 years in prison before getting his life together, as well as social service providers who talked about the resources that were available within the community for anyone who needed help escaping a life of crime.
Researchers have documented that this twin-fisted communication strategy helped to reduce re-offending in Chicago. Will it work in Brooklyn? It is too early to say -- this was just the fifth such meeting that we have organized. The participants don't leave the meetings declaring their commitment to law-abiding behavior, and even if they did, it would be empty words until they proved differently over time.
Still, I left Brownsville feeling extremely encouraged. The atmosphere in the room was serious but not somber. The camaraderie amongst the speakers felt easy and unforced -- the inter-agency partnership seems to be working well. Perhaps most important, a healthy percentage of the parolees stayed behind to ask for more information from service providers or just to shoot the breeze with the officials in the room. One participant claimed, no doubt with some justification, that he had been forced to attend "thousands" of meetings while in prison and on parole. I doubt whether he had ever gone to one quite like this before.