Washington — When it comes to youth violence, Peter Scharf, of the LSU School of Public Health in New Orleans, told the audience at a congressional briefing Wednesday, he knows the situation first-hand.
“I must say one thing about New Orleans: We are living this problem,” he said to the audience of about 50 in the U.S. House Rayburn Office Building.
Most of the violent crimes among young people in the United States are concentrated in a few cities — like New Orleans — with high poverty rates and significant narcotics-based economies, he said.
“It’s a daily pattern of life,” Scharf said. “We’ve had as many murders as we’ve had days in 2015.”
But as with cities across the country, crimes are not evenly distributed among neighborhoods in New Orleans — and the differences are not explained by racial demographics, as the city includes both majority-white and majority-black neighborhoods that are relatively safe, he said.
“The neighborhoods that have the highest rates of violence are the most alienated, the most disengaged, the most suspicious of outsiders, the most suspicious of people who want to do good,” he said.
That’s true not only in New Orleans but in parts of Chicago, north Newark, New Jersey, and north Baton Rouge, Scharf said.
Common denominators include low education levels, few jobs and nonexistent child care services, he said.
The local heroes are drug dealers: “Kids come of age and they want to be part of the dope and gun culture,” Scharf said. “You’ve got to change communities as well as kids.”
Scharf was among several panelists participating in the event, sponsored by the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. The group aims to apply policies based on research and evidence to the problem of youth violence.
That approach is much better than one based on “slogans and sound bites,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said at the introduction to the briefing. He is a co-sponsor of the Youth PROMISE Act, a proposal that seeks to incorporate the evidence-based strategy.
“We’re talking about things that have been tried and tested and proven to actually save lives,” U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., said at the briefing. “It’s not about being soft on crime: It’s about being right on crime.”
There are programs that yield good results — and they save society more money than they cost, panelists said. They include efforts to help single mothers with parenting, strengthen families, build job skills, involve young people in making decisions about their lives and broaden community cooperation, panelists said.
The evidence is there, said Thomas Simon, of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We can no longer say that we don’t know what works,” he said.
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