News Local/State

Six Young Men With History Of Gun-Related Crimes Offered Chance At A Fresh Start

Tracy Parsons

Tracy Parsons, Champaign community relations manager, facilitates CU Fresh Start, which is an initiative of the Champaign Community Coalition. Christine Herman/Illinois Public Media

CU Fresh Start offers people with a history of gun-related crimes a second chance at life. The anti-gun violence initiative hosted its fourth “call-in” event Thursday night at the Illinois Terminal in Champaign.

Law enforcement and community members selected six young men -- who are out on parole or probation for gun-related offenses -- and offered them help to turn their lives around.

The men sat at the front of the room, facing a panel of speakers comprised of city officials, police chiefs, faith leaders, and community members who’ve lost family members to gun violence.

The panelists spoke to the men, challenging them to accept the opportunity to chart a new path forward and warning them of consequences if they don’t change their ways.

“Take a look around the room at the posters of people in this community who have chose to pull the trigger,” said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb, pointing out the large photo printouts of men who are serving long prison sentences.

“They were not afforded the opportunity you are being given today,” Cobb said. “Some of these men will never see life outside of a jail cell. Do you want that to be you?”

Diamond Walker, a junior at Centennial High School, shared a spoken word piece about the sorrow she’s carried with her ever since she was six years old and her brother was shot and killed.

Seon Williams, a business owner in Champaign, shared how he’s seen too many people suffer from senseless violence.

Williams stood on the ground, not at the podium, and told the men: You matter.

“If it’s not for yourself, do it for the people who really do love you,” he said.

The men have one week to decide whether to participate.

“We’ve made a decision that instead of giving up on these individuals, we’re going to offer you one more chance,” said Tracy Parsons, Champaign community relations manager, who facilitates CU Fresh Start.

“That’s the important part about the call-in,” Parsons said. “It’s to reach out to say, ‘We want you to be successful, we want you to change. We’ll do what we can to help you if you are serious about that.’”

CU Fresh Start connects participants with resources to meet their individual needs, which may include help finding housing, jobs, getting access to transportation, or participating in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The Champaign Community Coalition launched the program in 2016 as a targeted approach to deter gun violence.

So far in 2018, there have been 47 shootings in Champaign-Urbana, which is higher than at this point last year. There were 85 shootings in 2017, 112 in 2016, and 127 in 2015.

Among the 29 men brought in for the first three call-in events, three have completed the program and seven are still participating. The others either chose not to participate or dropped out. Parsons said the success rate is a little better than the 20 percent rate common for programs of this type.

Parsons said CU Fresh Start is working with researchers at the University of Illinois to learn the reasons why many decline to participate or drop out.

The event was closed to the public but open to the media. Recording was not allowed, and members of the media agreed not to disclose the identities of the men being invited to participate in the program.

Later this month, CU Fresh Start will hold a community meeting to discuss the program’s strengths, figure out where there are gaps and identify additional resources within the community that may help participants.

The group plans to hold its final call-in event for 2018 in September.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman