‘Focused deterrence’ reduces gun crime

Former U.S. attorney shares lessons learned

I believe, based on experience, that we can reduce gun violence. When faced with a surge in gun violence, Peoria adopted “focused deterrence,” and this seems to reduce the problem.

David Kennedy, in his book, Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, describes his years of experience with communities that adopted the focused deterrence strategy. Kennedy came to Peoria at the request of Mayor Jim Ardis, and he also came to statewide conferences in 2013 and 2015, at the request of the three U.S. attorneys in Illinois.

How did we apply focused deterrence strategy in Peoria, and what happened? The team – the mayor, police chief, sheriff, state’s attorney, U.S. attorney and community leaders – chose to try not only prosecution after gun violence but also focused deterrence before gun violence. The team obtained commitments from law enforcement: police and sheriff’s offices, plus federal agencies including the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). The team explained its strategy to the community, and we began.
In Peoria, several groups had a history with gun violence. We prosecuted many members of the most dangerous group, the “Bomb Squad,” including federal court gun conspiracy charges. In a conspiracy, each conspirator is legally responsible for actions by the group.

At the same time, we reached out to others likely to become involved in violence. What was our message? With support from probation officers, we pulled likely shooters in for a group “call-in.” We delivered the law enforcement message: We know you and will prosecute if you shoot. Then we stepped aside for a more powerful message from the community. A “voice of pain” tells about losing someone to gun violence. A “voice of experience” tells about stepping away from a life of violence. A “voice of faith” talks about personal change. A service provider talks about assistance available in the community. And a “voice of community” sums up the need to change, in order to remain in the community, instead of becoming another criminal justice statistic, another “poster on the wall.”

The message is powerful. Does it work? David Kennedy’s experience, including his work with the National Network for Safe Communities, says that it works. Peoria’s experience says that it works. After our 2013 and 2015 statewide conferences, other communities, including Springfield and Champaign-Urbana, began similar efforts, with financial support from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

“Are we safe?” “Are we smart?” “Are we fair?” Let’s look at gun violence. This country has more than 20,000 suicides per year, and approximately 10,000 homicides per year. We could – and should – make the effort to become safer.

Since my focus is criminal justice, I don’t plan to discuss gun restrictions or mental health issues. For criminal justice, gun violence reduction efforts are smart and fair. We can reduce damage to victims and their families. We can send fewer people to prison, helping them and their families. And we can improve the climate for neighborhoods, businesses and recreation. Children want to play outside, safely. Parents want to sleep through the night, peacefully.  

Jim Lewis of Springfield is a former civil rights worker, civil rights lawyer and law school teacher. When he and his family came to Springfield in 1983, Jim worked in the United States Attorney’s Office, becoming the United States attorney in 2010. In late 2016, Jim retired, and he now teaches and volunteers.

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