Commentary

This Pa. budget season, we must invest in safer communities | Opinion

(Photo via Getty Images/Colorado Newsline.)

By Jay Costa and Adam Garber

For months, 16-year old Chay’nce King-Henderson had voiced serious concern about escalating violence in his community. After pushing, his family planned to leave Harrisburg in a few months despite being a sophomore at SciTech while working at Hershey Park to provide for his family.

Before that could happen, this “ all-around joyful person to be around” was gunned down in his backyard in what police believe to be a targeted shooting that took place just three months before his family’s planned move out of Harrisburg.

Chay’nce’s story is all too common amid a devastating surge in gun violence across the Commonwealth that is destroying a generation of young Black Pennsylvanians while creating dangerous neighborhoods that cause constant trauma.

Economic and social anxieties caused by the pandemic, combined with the record numbers of guns flowing into our communities, has sent the epidemic of gun violence into hyperdrive.

Every corner of the Commonwealth has been touched.

Harrisburg saw a nearly 60 percent increase in gun homicides in 2020, the deadliest year in three decades. Philadelphia has seen a 33 percent increase in homicides this year compared to 2020, on top of a 40% increase from 2019 to 2020.

Pittsburgh in 2021 has experienced a roughly 80 percent increase in homicides — including 17-year-old Daymeir Boyd’s murder in May — as well as a 90 percent increase in shootings, compared to the same timeframe last year. Other urban areas are not immune to the violence, with York leading 19 comparable cities in deadly gun violence over a five-year period.

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This horrific violence is a slow-moving massacre with no end in sight. A recent report by the Violence Policy Center confirmed what Black communities know all too well — Pennsylvania ranks 7th in the nation for Black homicides.

While we need common sense gun safety policies to reduce this violence, Pennsylvanians cannot wait–nor do they need to.

The next fiscal year’s budget is being crafted right now in Harrisburg, and it must include an unprecedented investment in safer communities to match the skyrocketing violence. We are calling for a bold $100 million investment in violence reduction, with $50 million specifically set aside to support community-based violence prevention programs.

These programs range in approach, but numerous studies show they can prevent, intervene and stop the spread of gun violence.

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Street outreach workers are trained to prevent shootings by identifying and mediating potentially lethal conflicts before they boil over into gunfire.  Youth mentoring helps teach conflict resolution. Hospital-based trauma informed care supports victims on their darkest day. Enhanced workforce development paired with psychological support turn incarcerated individuals away from more violence.

Violence intervention programs work because they are implemented by credible messengers — people who live in and have their finger on the pulse of the community, and might themselves have a history of violence or involvement in the criminal justice system and are able to speak from personal experience.

These trained violence interrupters offer alternatives to violence and incarceration by diffusing conflicts, then connecting shooters and at-risk youth to job training, supportive housing, drug treatment, counseling, and other trauma-informed wrap-around services.

Evidence shows that these programs work. For example, Oakland, California implemented this model and saw an almost 50 percent reduction in homicides.

For years, community members have used blood, sweat, tears and dollars from their own pockets to make their communities safer. But limited, sporadic funding makes long-term programming and sustainable results all but impossible. The General Assembly can change that.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency already operates multiple grant programs that invest in these evidence-based programs. The infrastructure in our Commonwealth’s government is already in place, we just need to invest enough resources and ensure consistent funding over time to give these programs an opportunity to work at scale.

The foremost duties of the government is to protect the lives of its citizens, and sadly, too many communities are being left to fend for themselves as the gun violence epidemic surges out of control. The solutions to community-based violence exist in the community — we need more elected officials in Harrisburg to step up to the plate and provide the financial support to allow these programs to work.

Lawmakers must make this line item a top priority in this year’s budget. Lives are depending on it.

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, is the Democratic floor leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate. Adam Garber is executive director of CeaseFirePa, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for gun violence reduction.

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