Last week, we took a closer look into the criminal justice system and gang violence in Salinas, CA, and we discussed ways in which we, as future peacemakers, can address some of the most important issues related to mass incarceration and gang violence. In the afternoon, we had the pleasure to listen to Julie Reynolds’ lecture on The Prison-to-Streets Connection, which provided an overview of the U.S. prison system and the issues surrounding the disproportionate incarceration of racial minorities. Mrs. Reynolds is a journalist who covers criminal violence in Monterey County, and has done extensive research on the Nuestra Familia gang (one of the largest prison gangs in the country). In this conversation we were able to identify the main causes of the incarceration boom in the US, the role of the so-called “Willie Horton effect” and the mass media in creating an environment of fear, and the rise of prison gangs in the state.
One of the most important takeaways from this discussion was realizing that there are several novel ways in which we can address gang violence by working directly with gang members, communities, the police, and local leaders. One successful example involves “call-in” sessions in which gang representatives meet with the community in order to emphasize deterrence. Originally applied in Chicago, the general message of these call-in sessions is “we will help you if you let us, but we will stop you if you make us.” In other words, the two main components of these call-ins are the element of redemption and reintegration into society (initiated and conveyed by members of the community who are present), and coercion (emphasized by law enforcement officials who give an ultimatum to the gang members). This initiative was particularly effective in Salinas, and according to the Chief of the Police Department and Mrs. Reynolds violence in Salinas decreased drastically in the months after the call-in.
In the afternoon, we met with Willie Stokes, who gave a lecture titled Redemption. Willie, a former Salinas gang member and current executive director of the Black Sheep Redemption Program, now dedicates his life to counseling local youths to stay out of gangs and other criminal activities. Willie’s life story, and his experiences in and out of penitentiary, added an important human perspective to the problems and particularities of the criminal system, as well as the structural factors that lead thousands of young people into gangs (poverty, lack of counseling, lack of recreational and academic opportunities for underprivileged youths, racial inequality, etc.). This conversation was both incredibly inspiring and upsetting at the same time, and it provided a much needed reminder of the importance of field work to have a more nuanced and informed opinion when talking about the criminal justice system in the U.S.