I have the opportunity to talk with Mayor Bill Bell about his idea to reduce gun violence by setting bonds in gun cases to $300,000. Last week we had two homicides in three days. Mayor Bell wants to send a clear message to perpetrators of violence that we are serious about ending violence. I applaud Mayor Bell for keeping this issue on the forefront of our minds; but, I disagree with his approach. This opportunity to talk about violence in Durham has required me to try to articulate some of the lessons I have learned about violence in Durham.

The Lessons of Violence

As a criminal defense attorney for more than ten years, I have appeared in about sixty murder cases. Most of them happened in Durham. I have met perpetrators, their families, victims, their families, police, and witnesses. I have immersed myself in each act of violence to understand why it happened, in order to help my client and in order to help our system search for justice. I have learned that our system works very hard to identify and punish the guilty, but it usually falls far short of finding justice, reconciliation, and healing for the victim, the perpetrator, and our community. As a Quaker and a Pacifist, I have continually asked the question why did this act of violence happen? What could have prevented it? How can we heal as a community moving forward? These are the questions we should be asking about violence in Durham – not “how high should the bond be.” I have learned that violence is a symptom of cascading social failures. By the time an act of violence occurs, there is a long series of social failures that have occurred, and locking up the perpetrator won’t prevent the next act of violence.

If you want to know how to prevent violence, talk to mothers of people charged with violent acts. They are suffering from the cascade of social failures. They will tell you that they saw it coming and they couldn’t find the help they needed for their children. You can talk to victims of domestic violence, who could have predicted the act days in advance, but they did not know how to get help.

Pieces of the Violence Puzzle

Reducing violence in Durham requires focused attention to many pieces of a complicated puzzle involving many different aspects of our community. We need people in leadership positions to keep their eye on the big picture, and we need people on the streets working hard on each piece of the puzzle. Each needs to communicate well with the other to share information, ideas, solutions and failures. Here are 10 pieces of that puzzle that I have encountered in my work:

1. Supporting Families and Women: Families with risk factors for violence need more help and support. These include folks living in poverty, single parents, where there are issues of mental illness and drug addiction. These also include people in verbally or physically abusive relationships. There are individual and family interventions that have been tested and proven to succeed in reducing violence by supporting these families by providing therapy, life training skills, conflict resolution skills, and stress reduction. We also need to empower women. Women are less likely to commit acts of violence, and are most often targets of violence. In Durham we ranked second last year (to Charlotte) for the number of domestic violence homicides. Women need to have the educational, emotional, financial, and community resources to escape abusive situations.

Jan Williams is the program director for Healthy Families Durham. This group provides support for families of young children. All of the families that they work with are low-income. Most moms are single parents who have multiple risk factors such as domestic violence, mental health issues, social isolation, and teenage parenting. Jan helps provide weekly home visits for up to three years, providing parent education, case management, supportive counseling, and helping the parents to meet their personal goals.

Over the last seven years, Healthy Families Durham has been conducting a randomized controlled trial of Healthy Families Durham. A preliminary analysis shows that the people they serve more likely to be connected with needed benefits, show significantly less stress, and their children show significantly fewer behavior problems. The children show significantly less indicators for aggression.

2. Gun Control: One important piece of the violence puzzle is the reasonable regulation and reduction of guns on our streets. Guns are more dangerous than cars, and should be regulated at least as much as cars. We should have to take a test to get a license to possess a gun. We should have to register the gun, and get insurance in case it hurts someone. The handling of guns should have to be inspected annually for safety. People with mental illness should not be allowed to get a gun license. Certain guns, like assault rifles, should only be provided to soldiers.

3. Stop Racism: Black residents in Durham are eight times more likely to be incarcerated for an offense than White offenders. Black residents are 200% more likely to be searched at a routine traffic stop than white motorists. We must end law enforcement practices which unfairly target people of color for investigation because of the color of their skin. We must work toward a justice system that works for people regardless of their race.

4. Mental Health: People with mental illness need support in our community. Many cannot afford mental health treatment or do not know where to get it. Many need intensive drug addiction treatment and can’t find any. Our jail has become the place where we put people with mental illness. Many acts of violence involve untreated mental illness. Family members know these folks are suffering with untreated mental illness or addiction, and feel helpless about where to get help for their family members. We need to support efforts like the Durham Police Crisis Intervention Team – where officers with special training in mental health are able to de-escalate situations safely. This team, and its supporting agency, the Criminal Justice System are often on the chopping block of budgetary decisions. All police should be trained in “Mental Health First Aid.” We need to support of Durham Network of Care, the Lincoln Community Health Care Center, and the Durham Center Access and Freedom House which provide 24 hour free mental health treatment free of charge.

We are moving in the wrong direction when we cut Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (Formerly the Durham Center) which provides services in Durham for mental health and drug treatment. This organization has lost three million in federal and state funds for this year. They served 11,000 people in Durham last year. Many of the clients who are parents, appear in court and have to get evaluations. There are few places to take Medicaid, and it is difficult to get evaluations, counseling and treatment. This is an essential source mental health treatment in our community. We are cutting the kind of mental health and addiction treatment that could prevent senseless violence in our community. (Local Mental Health, Drug Services to be Cut, Durham Herald Sun, Keith Upchurch, August 12, 2012, http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/19749570/article-Local-mental-health–drug-services-to-be-cut )

5. Reform the Justice System: The Court system does not address violence in a way that reduces violence. Incarceration does not reduce violence. We need to get 16 and 17 year old kids out of the Durham County Jail. Or, if we can’t release them, they need to have their own pod away from the adult offenders where their education is continued and they receive therapy and life skills training. We should promote efforts like the specialty courts in Durham – the Drug Treatment Court, the People’s Court, and the Domestic Violence Court.

We are moving in the wrong direction when we closed Family Drug Court due to budget cuts. This Court served moms whose kids were in DSS custody and who had pending juvenile court cases about their children. This court took a holistic approach to the problems faced by these mothers, including their needs for housing, job training, transportation, in addition to drug treatment.

We should get Professor Powell from Campbell Law School to bring his mediation program from Raleigh to Durham County Schools. In Wake County he is teaching non-violent conflict resolution skills to students, and reducing suspension and court referral rates in the meantime. We should embrace restorative justice techniques that bring the victims into the process and make their healing an important focus of the system.

6. Re-Entry of Ex-Offenders: Many acts of violence are perpetrated by people with previous criminal records. We need healthy ways to bring ex-offenders back into our community. With a criminal record these folks have difficulty getting housing and employment, which leads to more stress and increases the risk of violence. We should support efforts of the Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC) to help with the re-entry of ex-offenders back into our community. Folks like Gudrun Parmer with CJRC, and Marcia Owen of the Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham are helping bring ex-offenders back within the circle of our community in ways that reduce repeat offenses, or recidivism. There are roles for citizens to play forming circles of support and accountability, and working with probation officers, to help ex-offenders successfully return to our community. Keeping ex-offenders at the margins of our society greatly increases the risk of recidivism and violence in our community.

7. Concentrations of Poverty: Many violent acts occur in areas of concentrated poverty. We should look at efforts to invest in poor parts of Durham to help young people see a legitimate model of success. Young people in poor areas of Durham ought to see examples of peers who make good money without dealing drugs. We should support efforts of people like Peter Skillern with Reinvestment Partners and the Self Help Credit Union to invest in poor parts of Durham and create real economic opportunity. After decades of working in Durham, Mel Williams, of End Poverty Durham, believes that poverty is the single most important factor leading to violence.

8. Youth Programs: We should support youth programs like ‘Yo Durham’ and others which help Youth find creative and fun ways to form healthy peer groups in situations where there is a risk of violence or gang affiliation. Churches should reach out to kids on the street, accept them for who they are, and love them. Youth at risk for violence should be able to find groups where they accepted, protected, and guided by folks who understand what they are going through.

9. Changing the Culture of Violence: We live in a culture where violence is glorified. Try to count the number of violent acts in a three hour television segment. Our culture makes violence acceptable. We should support organizations like North Carolina Peace Action which offer a variety of ways for individuals, families, and community organizations to think carefully about the role of violence in our daily lives. We should teach our children that violence is an unacceptable and unhealthy life choice.

10. Durham Crime Cabinet: We should empower the Durham Crime Cabinet to take a more active and public role in reducing violence in our Community. The goal of Durham’s Crime Cabinet is to bring all available resources to bear on reducing Durham’s crime. The committee offers coordination and communication among member agencies. The Crime Cabinet, co-chaired by Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and Councilman Howard Clement, meets every other month. Member organizations include the Durham Police Department, Durham County Sheriff’s Office, Probation and Parole, Partners Against Crime, Durham Technical Community College, Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Durham Businesses against Crime, Criminal Justice Resource Center, Office of the Superior Court, and our District Court Judges.

This Cabinet should also include members of the community who are victims of violent crimes and families of perpetrators of violent crime. Much of the work of the Cabinet has focused on proposing more serious penalties for crimes. I recommend they take a more holistic approach to reducing violence and preventing crime. They should keep an eye on the big picture of violence in Durham while supporting groups who are working on the individual pieces of that puzzle and filling in the gaps. When a violent act occurs, this group should investigate what happened from the point of view of figuring out where our social care system failed. This group could identify the efforts that are working, the policies that are not working, and ways to fill the holes in our net of care.

There is something called the Youth Promise Act in Congress now that would fund a commission of community members to come together, hire someone to research the situations and causes of violence in a city and work with the community members to design the best interventions. It’s been tried with great success in such places as New York City and Los Angeles. We could apply for this grant to fund and expand the work of the Durham Crime Cabinet to address the issues raised here.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it addresses many of the issues that lead to violence. In 2008 the World Health Organization issued a report on youth violence as a public health problem. In that report there were 10 ways to reduce violence listed:

Ten Credible evidence based strategies for preventing violence

1. Increase safe, stable, and nurturing relationships between children and their parents and caretakers;

2. Reduce availability and misuse of drugs and alcohol;

3. Reduce access to lethal means, such as guns, knives, and pesticides (often used to commit suicide, especially in low- and middle-income countries);

4. Improve life skills and enhance opportunities for children and youth;

5. Promote gender equality and empower women;

6. Change cultural norms that support violence;

7. Improve criminal justice systems;

8. Improve social welfare systems;

9. Reduce social distance between conflicting groups;

10. Reduce economic inequality and concentrated poverty.

Source: WHO. (2008). Preventing violence (http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2008/9789241596589_eng.pdf )

A report of the United States Surgeon General in 2001 suggested that incarceration is not the most effective way to reduce violence.

“In the 1990s, faced with the epidemic of violence and largely unaware that research had found some violence prevention programs to be effective — as well as often buying into the “just desserts” philosophy — the only option some legislators saw was to lock up violent youths to protect society. New evidence makes a compelling case that intervention programs can be cost-effective and can reduce the likelihood that youths will become repeat offenders. Given this evidence, it is in the country’s interest to place as many violent youths as possible in these programs, thus correcting the imbalance that now favors use of the criminal justice system over effective intervention programs. Reclaiming youths from a violent lifestyle has clear advantages over warehousing them in prisons and training schools.” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44299/#A13331 )

In Conclusion

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of violence in my community. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and suggestions. The work to reduce violence is real peacemaking. Blessed are the Peacemakers. I believe we each begin making peace within ourselves. As the Dali Lama has said: “Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion, altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. The atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to the family, from the family to the community, and eventually to the whole world.”

I will close with a list of local organizations that I have encountered who are doing incredible work on various pieces of the puzzle. I welcome any suggested additions to this list, and ideas about other pieces of the puzzle.

Organization Contact Website
Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham Marcia Owen http://www.nonviolentdurham.org/RCND/About_RCND.html
Criminal Justice Resource Center and STARR program Gudrun Parmer http://www.co.durham.nc.us/departments/cjrc/
Durham Center Access, Freedom House Anita Daniels http://durham.nc.networkofcare.org/mh/services/agency.aspx?pid=FreedomHouseDurhamOutpatientServices_371_5_0
Durham Police Department Crisis Intervention Team Alanna J. Jones, CJRC http://durhamnc.gov/ich/op/DPD/Pages/CIT.aspx
Durham Congregations in Action Spencer Bradford http://dcia.org/
Conflict Resolution Center and In-School Truancy Court Grace Marsh  
Specialty Courts: Drug Treatment Court, People’s Court,   Domestic Violence Court Judge Marsha Morey http://www.nccourts.org/County/Durham/Programs/Drug/Default.asp
Center for Child and Family Health, Healthy Families   Durham Jan Williams http://www.ccfhnc.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=21&Itemid=89
East Durham Child Initiative David Reese http://edci.org/
Nativity School Daniel Vannelle http://www.durhamnativity.org/
End Poverty Durham Mel Williams http://www.endpovertydurham.org/
Yo Durham   http://www.yodurham.org/
Reinvestment Partners Peter Skillern http://www.reinvestmentpartners.org/
NC Peace Action Betsy Crites http://ncpeaceaction.org/
Urban Ministries and Lincoln Community Health Care Center Julia Gamble http://www.nhchc.org/directory/lincoln-community-health-center/
Housing for New Hope Melissa Heartful http://housingfornewhope.org/
Project Safe Neighborhoods Jennifer Snyder http://durhamnc.gov/ich/op/DPD/Pages/PSN.aspx
Alliance Behavioral Healthcare (Formerly the Durham   Center)   http://www.alliancebhc.org/