One by one, the faces of 13 Chicago youths slain in gun violence this year beamed from a projection screen to the group of civic leaders gathered at a downtown luncheon to hear U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon speak.
The teens’ lives ended in neighborhoods from South Lawndale to Rogers Park for reasons ranging from gang violence to social media slights. They included high school freshman Venzel Richardson, gunned down as he left a South Side convenience store on Feb. 12, and 14-year-old Endia Martin, shot last month allegedly in a dispute over a boy.
Fardon, who has faced pressure to curtail the violence since he took office seven months ago, told the crowd at the City Club of Chicago on Wednesday that the road wasn’t going to be easy, but it was time for leaders in all areas of the city to come together and work on a solution.
“It is my problem, and it’s your problem. It’s our problem,” Fardon said in a 30-minute speech that detailed the city’s gun violence and the entrenched gang culture at its root. “We have in this room business leaders, law leaders and civic leaders. We have thoughtful people and we have powerful people…I want us to talk about these issues today and tomorrow and every day and every week until we get to a better place than where we are now.”
The speech marked the first time Fardon has used his pulpit as a call to action.
He unveiled one new initiative -- the Youth Outreach Forum, which launched this month in the Englewood and Garfield Park neighborhoods and is modeled after the Project Safe Neighborhoods program that uses a carrot-and-stick approach to try to keep those convicted of violent crimes from re-offending. The youth program is being funded by a two-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I don't want to prosecute a violent offender if I can prevent the act of violence from happening in the first place,” Fardon said.
Like Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Youth Outreach Forum is a joint federal-city initiative that will feature monthly meetings with juvenile offenders – some as young as 12 -- who have been locked up for gun or violent crimes and are about to be re-enter their neighborhood or school. Such youths are at an extreme risk of falling into a lifetime of crime if no one steps in to stop it, Fardon said.
The goal, Fardon said, will be to let teen convicts know “in an honest way” the consequences of re-offending. Public schools leaders and social service providers will be on hand to provide long-term mentoring, access to after-school activities and help with job searches, Fardon said. Ex-offenders also are invited to speak to show that there is another way of life.
“Basically, it’s trying to give these kids alternatives to the gang route,” Fardon said.
The Project Safe Neighborhoods program, which was started under Fardon’s predecessor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been touted as a success. In the neighborhoods where it has been implemented, offenders who attend the meetings are 30 percent less likely to commit another act of violence, Fardon said.
“That is moving the needle,” Fardon said. “...I have attended these meetings. They are compelling, they are emotional and they work.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun