Along with making speeches and hiring more police, Mayor Rahm Emanuel needs to pay attention to what research tells us about the causes of and possible solutions to the problem of gun violence.
As a city we are falling short in some of the most important areas.
In a 2009 report on gun violence among school-age youth in Chicago, the University of Chicago Crime Lab points out that “most low-income males growing up in Chicago’s most disadvantaged and dangerous neighborhoods never become involved with gun violence.”
What distinguishes those who do? The report identifies three major factors: alcohol abuse (which is generally associated with gun violence), mental health issues and problems in school. Gun availability is particularly important in combination with these three factors.
Along the way, the authors touch on some of the mayor’s primary strategies. “Promoting positive youth development is not as simple as just launching a new program,” they write, particularly because the most at-risk youth “do not fully avail themselves of social and educational resources.”
And “swifter, less severe penalties” for infractions like gun possession, such as community service, may be better deterrents, without the negative repercussions of incarceration, they suggest.
“Improving the schooling engagement and outcomes for at-risk youth seems like a particularly important component of an antiviolence strategy,” according to the report, which adds that early intervention is crucial. There’s solid evidence that early childhood education is key to improving school readiness and life outcomes.
Emanuel has made a frequent talking point of his claims of expanding access to early childhood education, but those claims don’t measure up. Full-day early childhood programs have grown to 17,000 slots since 2011. (Emanuel counts federal and state-funded slots along with the small number funded by the city.) But that growth has been accomplished by reducing half-day slots, resulting in no increase of children served, according to Emma Tai of SEIU Healthcare, part of the Bright Futures Chicago Coalition, which advocates for universal early childhood education.
Overall, enrollment in CPS early education programs actually declined by nearly 2,000 kids between 2012 and the 2015 school year, Tai said. The 17,000 full-day slots leave out three-fourths of the city’s 3- and 4-year olds, and there are an estimated 150,000 children 4 and younger, including many from working poor families, without access to full-day, publicly funded programs, she said.
A “key transition period” for youth, according to the Crime Lab, is around eighth and ninth grade, and CPS has made progress here by focusing on keeping students on track. But there’s still far to go – graduation rates for black students are up slightly, but the gap between black and white graduation rates is still among the highest among comparable school districts, the Chicago Reporter recently reported.
“What that says is that there are not enough supports being targeted toward African-American males,” one expert tells the Reporter.
That progress is being threatened by deep budget cuts, especially at neighborhood high schools that serve many at-risk youth. Neighborhood high schools with predominantly black student bodies have lost an average of $1.9 million each over the past three years.
The Crime Lab reported that “a majority of youth involved with the criminal justice system had at least one psychiatric disorder.” Rates of depression and severe depression, anxiety and substance abuse were 2 to 9 times higher among juvenile detainees in Cook County than among African-American youth generally. We have to “do a better job of identifying and treating mental health problems among young people before these disorders lead to violence,” according to the report.
But according to researchers at the Chicago Teachers Union, the number of social workers in CPS is down 18 percent since 2013, with the average school social worker serving nearly 1,000 students. The district has lost 130 counselors in that period, a 14 percent reduction, with most remaining counselors now doing double duty as special education case managers.
Meanwhile, the city’s six remaining mental health clinics are operating far below capacity, according to the Mental Health Movement. According to advocates at a recent mental health town hall, the clinics are located in areas with the fewest mental health services – and the highest mental health-related 911 calls.
The city could increase clinic services significantly simply by joining managed care networks that would allow it to seek reimbursement from Medicaid. The Mental Health Movement estimates that could bring in $2 million a year.
Since 2013, activists have called on Emanuel to direct the public health department to join the networks – charging that the city was “sabotaging remaining services” by failing to do so. For one thing, inadequate staffing has meant that psychiatrist hours at city clinics have dropped by more than half in the past two years.
Expanding early childhood education, ending budget cuts at neighborhood schools, adding school social workers and counselors – all these are worthy investments, but they will take money. They will require Emanuel to loosen the strings on tax increment financing surpluses and push at the state level for more revenue. The need for this is urgent if we are to address the crisis of gun violence effectively.
But joining managed care networks in order to improve mental health services – that will bring in millions of dollars. We could do it tomorrow. It would be a good place to start.