Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How Baltimore’s Ex-Cons Are Stopping Violence Before It Happens

November 10, 2014
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How Baltimore’s Ex-Cons Are Stopping Violence Before It Happens
Safe Streets employs community members in Baltimore neighborhoods to help stop violence in its tracks. Courtesy Baltimore Safe Streets
The city is notorious for its crime, but former inmates are working to change that.

Baltimore is one of the country’s most notorious gang-infested cities.

As HBO’s “The Wire” depicted, the city has long grappled with the issue. In fact, Baltimore City is estimated to be home to 170 gangs with more than 1,000 members, according to a recent report.

Much like a virus, stopping the spread of violence can be difficult. But Cure Violence, a nonprofit that operates six inner city initiatives across the United States, is hoping by treating it like a disease, we can stop it in its tracks.

Founded in 1995 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, Cure Violence applies the tenets of disease eradication to gang violence, with the aim of stopping shootings and homicide by targeting the source. The idea is to treat shootings and gang violence much like HIV or tuberculosis and prevent further spreading by starting with those who are already infected. Part of that process is employing community members and even ex-cons, who are product of the neighborhood in which Cure Violence operates.

In Baltimore, Park Heights Safe Streets is Cure Violence’s local arm of intervention. These residents are “trusted insiders” who know boundary lines and corners, walking the streets to help prevent shootings from happening. But they’re not police; they’ll even look away when it comes to drug deals, as long as they don’t involve violence.

“You twist it. You say, ‘You going to shoot that guy because he stole $130 of drugs? Christmas is around the corner. Who’s going to be Santa?’ ” says Dante Barksdale, the outreach coordinator for the Park Heights site.

Barksdale is a former convict and the nephew of the notorious Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, the inspiration for Avon Barksdale, a character in “The Wire.” Barksdale’s colleague, Greg Marshburn, has been in and out of prison over 17 years for crimes such as attempted murder and robbery. He has been stabbed at least 20 times and shot four times. He uses his former contacts to seek out where shootings or homicides are imminent.

“I go as far as saying, ‘Who’s going to raise your kids?’ ” Marshburn says of when he intervenes.

Communities are required to be in the top quartile of nonfatal shootings and gun homicides in order to become a Safe Streets neighborhood. The group also vets its community employees by health professionals and local leaders who determine if the individual is able to handle conflict resolution and can stay clean. The only immediate disqualification for a job is a history of child abuse or domestic violence, the National Journal reports. 

While Safe Streets can’t completely eradicate violence, it’s certainly making inroads at slowing the infection. The program has mediated 685 conflicts this year, with 624 anticipated to have resulted in a shooting.

Now that’s a statistic that doesn’t need juking.

MORE: The Big Easy Has a Bright Idea to Curb Violence

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