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Boston's brilliant idea to cut crime: treat criminals like real people with real problems

Boston preachers had a radical idea for reducing youth violence: listen to young people's grievances, and address their concerns with ideas that go beyond looking tough on crime. And it worked.

In a recent TED talk, Pastor Jeffrey Brown explained one of the ways Boston brought down violent crime by 79 percent in the 1990s: by reaching out to the kids, teens, and young adults who were committing crime. At first, Brown did this by walking in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Boston late at night with fellow clergy. "We did an amazing thing for preachers: we decided to listen and not preach," Brown said.

Over time, the young people began talking to Brown. "One of the biggest myths was that these kids were cold and heartless and uncharacteristically bold in their violence," he said. "What we found out was the exact opposite. Most of the young people who were out there in the streets are just trying to make it in the streets. And we also found out that some of the most intelligent and creative and magnificent and wise people we've ever met were on the street, engaged in a struggle."

What Brown learned is that these kids weren't turning to violence because they were inherently evil people — they were just trying to survive in a society that had offered them few opportunities to rise out of poverty and other dire circumstances. "I know some of them call it survival, but I call them overcomers," Brown said. "When you're in the conditions they're in, to be able to live every day is an accomplishment of overcoming."

After hearing these grievances, the clergy began bringing groups and people together — including law enforcement and the private sector — to build more comprehensive plans to address youth violence. This meant not just locking up violent criminals, but building new education and economic opportunities for them, as well.

"When you're in the conditions that they're in, to be able to live every day is an accomplishment of overcoming"

Brown explained that he didn't start out as a pastor intending to work with a local task force to reduce crime, but he felt drawn to the role when he saw rising youth violence deteriorate Boston. "It got to the point where it started to change the character of the city," Brown said. "The parents wouldn't allow their kids to come out and play even in the summertime because of the violence."

One particularly gruesome murder caught Brown's attention. Some of the gang members who were responsible for the killing were around Brown's age at the time — but, as he explained, "the gulf that was between us was vast. It's like we were in two completely different worlds."

This moment showed Brown that in all his sermons about building community, he had neglected a widely marginalized group of youth — the kind of adolescents who would fall back on violence and crime because they genuinely felt like they had no other option.

"If I really wanted the community that I was preaching for, I needed to reach out and embrace this group that I had cut out of my definition," Brown said, "which meant not about building programs to catch those who are in the fences of violence, but to reach out and to embrace those who were committing the acts of violence — the gang-bangers, the drug dealers."