Last month, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced the indictment of 14 members of a young street crew accused of selling crack cocaine and powerful automatic weapons around West 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues–a neighborhood graced by churches, schools and community centers. But as we work to free our neighborhoods from being held hostage by gang violence, one issue must remain at the forefront of our minds–the future of our youth.
And too many of our youth are in jeopardy.
In 2010, 30 percent of the defendants indicted in Manhattan for carrying loaded weapons were 18 years old or younger. These are young men and women who should be heading to college–not to prison or early graves. An illegal weapon does not care if you’re carrying it for a block, for protection or for your friend. If it goes off, the result is, more often than not, a tragedy that unfolds in widening circles, first for the victim and the victim’s family, then for the family of the youth who fired the bullet, and finally for the whole community.
In the 137th Street indictment, only one of the 14 people charged is older than 21; the youngest is 17. But the seriousness of the charges is anything but juvenile. As the indictment states, these members are accused not only of trafficking narcotics, but of targeting even younger teens to act as lookouts and gunrunners, and continuing the operation unfettered when the gang’s leaders were incarcerated. This case demonstrates the attraction that gang membership will continue to have for young people unless and until we act decisively.
To combat gun and gang violence, we need a strategy that combines both enforcement and prevention, and engages communities affected by gun violence as essential partners. To better understand the crime patterns across the borough, we created the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) in the district attorney’s office. The mission of CSU is to harness the collective resources of our office and law enforcement to identify priority spots throughout the borough where crime is rampant. In cases involving gangs, our collective knowledge of the individual crimes and perpetrators allows us to see the larger problem at work and to build an investigative strategy to address them.
Aggressive prosecution alone will neither prevent the creation of these gangs nor keep our youth from joining them. Active involvement of parents, guardians and the broader community in this issue is a necessity. Our legal staff has been in the community every week, talking to parents, teachers, community groups and students about how to identify signs of gang involvement, how gangs recruit new members and what parents can do if they suspect their child is involved in gang activity.
On March 15, for example, we will partner with the NYPD to present “Gangs: 101,” an educational workshop for parents at P.S. 152 Dyckman Valley School in Inwood. And on March 31, we will hold a town hall meeting in Central Harlem to engage the community in proactive crime prevention strategies. Forging ties among police, prosecutors, parents and students is the best crime prevention strategy I know.
We are also working with community groups focused on reducing truancy, which is a warning sign of a troubled child and often a precursor to entrance into the criminal justice system. Additionally, this week we began referring cases to the Youth Court in the Harlem Community Justice Center to more productively handle low-level crimes committed by teens between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. Both programs share the same goal: to keep our young people, to the extent possible, out of the criminal justice system and in our schools and communities.
We are fortunate in Manhattan that crime has dropped significantly in the last decade, but the true victory for us will be a gang-free, gun-free environment that encourages all of our children to thrive and live the successful lives they deserve to live.