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Freddie Gray shows us it's time to lead in Baltimore and beyond

The fires on Baltimore's streets have again lit up the questions of race, violence, justice. These are not new questions. As Maryland's lieutenant governor from 1995 to 2003, I was responsible for instituting criminal justice reforms that focused on prevention, early intervention and the building bridges of trust and cooperation between the community and the police. I made it my mission to build safe communities by reducing crime, forging strong community ties and employing research.

Fifty-three percent of crimes occur in 3 percent of the neighborhoods. One traditional response was to flood those areas with more police. Crime would go down in that area, but would often just move to another place. Research also showed that most crime is committed by people already under supervision of the criminal justice system and that it was easier for police to identify individuals most at risk for repeated offenses by cooperating with community leaders. So we launched a "Hot Spot" initiative, bringing together community leaders who could talk freely and frankly with police, parole and probation officers. It reduced crime in high crime communities by 35 percent in three years. Because it worked, we doubled the number of Hot Spots.

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We increased the funding for drug treatment and studied which type of treatment was most effective for the different type of drugs and addicts. Then we launched Break the Cycle in which the Division of Parole and Probation developed a policy of graduated sanctions for those who tested positive for drugs. And we put probation officers in the schools so that the teachers could focus on teaching, rather than discipline.

I found that too many of the programs in schools were negative: Stop using drugs, stop having early sex, stop drinking, don't cheat. And they didn't work. It is more effective to appeal to the character of students through a community service effort and character education. This approach required the engagement not only of teachers and parents but also of the people who served food in school cafeterias and the janitors. A school, after all, is a community and everyone needs to have a voice that is heard. Once again, this was a policy that produced real results in the real world.

In 1968, after the killing of Martin Luther King, cities across America, including Baltimore, were caught in flames. My father, Robert F. Kennedy, while campaigning for the presidency, broke the terrible news of Dr. King's murder to an inner city crowd in Indianapolis. He spoke of the temptation to bitterness and anger, and a desire for revenge, recalling his own brother's death, President John F. Kennedy. But instead of giving in to rage, he said the suffering could teach us to learn to love one another and make gentle the life of the world. Indianapolis was one of the few cities that night that did not erupt. In tragic contrast, Baltimore burned for days.

The next day my father spoke about the violence of institutions.

"For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions¿ indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men."

Two months later, Robert Kennedy, himself, was killed.

Unfortunately, the nation failed to heed my father's call to focus on the systemic roots of violence, inequality and injustice.

Instead, the strict law-and-order reaction and denunciation of civil rights leaders by Maryland's then governor, Spiro Agnew, endeared him to Richard Nixon. And Nixon and Agnew rode the wave of fear engendered in the country by the riots to the White House.

The challenge of criminal justice will once again play a central role in the 2016 presidential campaign. But, in contrast to 1968, the harsh reaction of the past should not be the winning ticket. Instead, there is an alternative. We can reduce violence by improving criminal justice (and we know how to do it).

Every child and every person can be a leader within their schools, families and among their peers. The violence in Baltimore requires national leadership, not silence and passivity, and not the discredited attitudes that have prevented us from dealing with the underlying problems that led first to burn. With heart, the will and the determination we can make life better in Baltimore — and across our beloved country. As my father said, citing the poet Tennyson, "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

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