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The Newark Violence Reduction Initiative has received a total of $500,000 in grants from the following organizations:
> Community Foundation of New Jersey
> PSEG Foundation
> The Nicholson Foundation
> The Prudential Foundation
> Victoria Foundation
In parts of Newark, the code of the streets demands a violent payback for every threatening or even disrespectful gesture. This game of tit for tat helps explain why Newark, like countless other cities across the United States, has seen rising rates of gun violence.

The idea behind the Newark Violence Reduction Initiative, launched last year by Rutgers–Newark’s School of Criminal Justice with support from several private foundations, is to reconfigure the street norms behind the statistics. Using an innovative approach that has cut urban crime rates across the country, the initiative aims to reduce Newark’s gang-related shootings by 25 to 30 percent, laying the groundwork for further positive change. “Nothing happens in a city where people feel unsafe,” says Todd Clear, the school’s dean.

Anthony Braga SCJ’93, GSN’97, a professor in the school, is leading the project in collaboration with New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While Braga assesses the project’s quantitative impact on Newark’s crime rate, Rutgers–Newark associate professor Rod Brunson will evaluate the program qualitatively, interviewing community members about their perceptions of crime and policing.

The initiative requires police and prosecutors to focus on the small number of lawbreakers responsible for most violent crimes. In Newark, that’s 1,470 people, less than 1 percent of the city’s 277,000 residents, Braga says. Data collected for the project show that, in 2009–10, this tiny fraction of Newark’s population was behind the violence in 73 crime hot spots that cover less than 9 percent of the city’s square mileage—but account for half its shootings.

To reach this group, police and prosecutors summon gang members to a neighborhood meeting and deliver a firm message: the violence must stop, or the whole group—not just the individuals involved in the latest encounter—will face intense scrutiny. “They say, ‘We’re going to crack down on everything that this group is involved in,’” Braga says.

Then community members speak, condemning violence and encouraging gang members to choose education, job training, and drug treatment. Ensuring that such social services are readily available to anyone who wants them is a key element of the initiative.

Focused policing ensures that the cost of violence outweighs its perceived benefits; community pressure makes positive alternatives more attractive and appeals to gang members’ “moral sense that it’s inherently wrong to be picking up guns and shooting people,” Braga says. This carrot-and-stick approach reduces crime without filling prisons.

By targeting lawbreakers, the model also avoids antagonizing law-abiding citizens with heavy-handed police tactics that treat everyone as a suspect, says Brunson. “It’s not enough to reduce crime,” he says. “We also need to make sure that people who live in the communities feel that there is legitimacy in the way in which crime has been reduced.”

The approach has proven effective in a dozen cities over the past 15 years. In Boston, where Braga helped pioneer the method in the mid-1990s, youth homicides fell by 63 percent. “There’s not nearly as much resistance to this idea at the gang level as you would think,” Clear says. “Gang members want their lives to improve.”

So far, the five-year initiative has received $500,000 in grants toward its $600,000 annual budget. Clear is optimistic about securing more funding—and about what that will mean for Newark’s future.

“Our expectation is that we will see results,” says Clear, “and that the results will convince people not to walk away from this work.”    

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Mo Daoud.

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