Nine young men face the music at CU Fresh Start intervention

Nine young men face the music at CU Fresh Start intervention

CHAMPAIGN — On the fourth floor of the Illinois Terminal on Thursday night, nine young men entered a room, escorted by law enforcement. Poster boards on easels, 14 of them, featuring mugshots, charges and prison sentences of local convicted criminals greeted them as they took their seats in a semicircle.

Behind the nine, close to 100 members of the Champaign and Urbana communities sat in rows.

In front of them, 12 folks representing local law enforcement, clergy and members of the community who have been affected by gun violence, sat prepared to take turns speaking to them.

The nine young black men were selected to participate in the first CU Fresh Start call-in, a program designed to focus on offenders with a history of violent, gun-related behaviors. The goal of the program is simple: Stop gun violence in the community.

"This is difficult; it's sad; it's tough," said Tracy Parsons, community coalition facilitator and Champaign community relations manager. "But it's critical and very important."

The nine young men were identified by local law enforcement, with the help of community members, and all met certain criteria. They were all at least 18 years old, on probation or parole, have a prior felony arrest, prior gun arrest or violent crime conviction and were connected with a recent violent crime based on credible information.

As of Thursday night, there had been 84 shooting incidents in Champaign-Urbana since Jan. 1, and the dozen speakers all stressed to the nine young men that the violence needs to end. If they choose to put down the guns, various members of the community will be there to help them carve out a new path in life. Continue the life of crime? Prepare to have the book thrown at you.

"You all are luckier than people you see on posters. You still have a choice," Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen told the group.

Feinen relayed to the group that she grew up in this community. She went to school here, and she's raising her family here.

"This is our home, and you're making it a dangerous place to be," she told them.

Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh, State's Attorney Julia Rietz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Hansen were among the group that spoke to the offenders.

Walsh spoke of Robbie Patton, the 18-year-old who was recently charged with first-degree murder for a shooting that occurred on Green Street in Campus town last month.

"If it turns out he committed that crime, he will be real lucky if he lives into his mid-80s, and then he will get to go outside of the prison," Walsh said.

Rietz sat down and spoke directly to the nine, looking them all in the eye.

"Don't confuse the fact that I'm sitting here looking you in the eye with weakness. It's not," Rietz said. "If you don't take advantage of these opportunities I will stand up there in my state's attorney voice and make the strongest argument to put you on this wall, because we just have to stop this."

Hansen echoed Rietz's sentiments.

Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb spoke about those who have been died as a result of gun violence in recent years, including Desirae Dearmond Austin, 20, who was struck by a stray bullet on July 4, 2012.

"You all are very fortunate to have not killed or seriously injured someone," Cobb told the group. "If you choose not to put the gun down and continue along the current path, we will use every legal means available to us to rid our community of you."

Ms. Austin's father, Michael Dearmond, was among those who spoke to the nine young men. He was in prison himself when he found out his daughter had been killed.

"My daughter was (20) years old; it hurts," Dearmond said, fighting back tears. "I had just talked to her; we were making plans for when I got home to get an apartment with her and my grandbabies."

Dearmond relayed his own prison experience and let the young men know that that's not where they want to be. He even noticed one of the nine young men's casual attitude toward Thursday's exercise.

"You ain't taking this for real," he said, chastising one of the participants. "They're going to put you up there (on the wall) you keep messing with these guns."

As the one-hour intervention wore on, the dozen speakers noticed the participants getting more and more engaged, seeming to take it seriously.

"I noticed in the beginning they were a little cold-shouldered, but when we began talking about the families, we started getting their attention," said the Rev. Rickey Parks of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. "It not only affects the person that was shot, but their families and the shooter's family. That kind of opened the eyes. I noticed some of the guys began sitting up in their chairs when the family members talked about losing their daughter."

Community member Rodney Williams is a former gang member who spent years in the state penitentiary before being released in 2006. He's since turned his life around and is hopeful that the nine young men will follow his path. Williams has a landscaping business and also works at O'Charley's.

"People thought I'd never change," he said. "We didn't have this program when I was your age."

The CU Fresh Start program is modeled after the book "Don't Shoot" by David Kennedy. Peoria has had a program similar to what Champaign-Urbana is attempting, and they've experienced some success with it.

"The data shows three out of the nine tonight will say they want the help, 'I'm ready to change; I'm ready to leave my crew,'" Parsons said. "The other six are probably going to end up with the state's attorney. We hope that's not the case. I hope all nine say, 'Yes, I'm in, I need the help.'"

Donte Lotts, of Prairie Center, spoke during the session, then spent time with the nine men in a separate room afterward, letting them know he was available to help them achieve whatever goals they might have going forward.

"This isn't a free pass; this is an opportunity. Donte is going to do a risk-needs assessment for those that want to participate and make a change. They have a choice tonight," Urbana Police Chief Pat Connolly said. "If we can help as a community to get them back on track, not offer job programs and provide driver's licenses for them, but act as a broker of services. If they're asking for the help, Donte will be able to point them to the right (place)."

The hope is that the immediate results show the program is effective and that the number of gun incidents is cut dramatically. However, should the need arise, another call-in will be held and will continue as necessary.

"I think our plan is quarterly, but all of it will depends on the actions that are taking place in the streets," Parsons said. "Hopefully we see an immediate reduction to our gun violence issue and we won't have to do this again."

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Jsmith68 wrote on October 07, 2016 at 7:10 am

If this program is to work you need to identify each of them by name and mugshot. If the goal is to protect the public and protect these youg men from themselves be totally transparent. I hope this works.  But, hiding their identities is wrong.

Chambanacitizen wrote on October 07, 2016 at 8:10 am

Jsmith..if they were previously arrested, then their mugshot s are on file already. Think.

Jsmith68 wrote on October 07, 2016 at 10:10 am

So of the 20,000 mugshots on file you pick out the 9.  Think.

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 8:10 am

So if they ask for help walking away from a gang, etc., put their picture in the paper so everybody knows? Maybe we can go to drug treatment with them, too, if they need that just to make sure it's "transparent".

Local Yocal wrote on October 07, 2016 at 7:10 am
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Wasn't Kennedy's original plan calling for jobs to be offered to the identified 9 probationers? That Chief Connolly would declare there will be no jobs or driver's licenses offered seems a shallow way to incentivize these young men to turn it around.

What effect will Fresh Start, The Robbie Patton case, and The Wayne Colson case have on prosecutions of young black men in Champaign County?

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 9:10 am

I think his comment is more about they don't hand out a job and walk away. Many of these guys are employed in low-paying jobs, or have other issues that need resolved to make them employable.

As this progresses and they are seeing people they know go away for life after this spell of so many dying it's possible more may start reaching out for help. Question is, will the help be there?

Beem wrote on October 07, 2016 at 9:10 am

Is Aaron Ammons on board with this program? Won't he see this as discriminatory? If he thinks the traffic stop statistics show racial bias, then he surely believes that if it's 100 percent young black men that need this program, it's racial bias.

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 2:10 pm

It's 100% people who need the program.

LoLoBon wrote on October 07, 2016 at 9:10 am

What is wrong with you people? What are YOU doing to help? When a community is challenged with the numbers that CU is seeing, you gotta look to help. If one person accepts help, it is one less person on the streets doing harm to others. Like Mr. Parsons, if all 9 say I want help to change that'd be a miracle. Mr. Lotts also can provide a great deal of support to these 9. I wish them God's speed and success. Stop being so dang critical keep the negativity to yourself. Ain't nobody got time for that!

Diane Marlin wrote on October 07, 2016 at 9:10 am

C-U Fresh Start's primary goal is to reduce gun violence in the community: to reduce shootings and avoid further injuries and deaths.  The message from Fresh Start is simple:  Put down the guns and stop shooting.  What makes this focused deterrence approach different is that this message is coming from the community as well as from law enforcement.  The community has offered to  help these young men going forward, if they are willing to take them up on the offer.  

The Fresh Start case manager is an experienced social worker and educator who is funded through Prairie Center.  He'll work with each individual to figure out what they may want or need in the long run to turn away from the violence.  Chief Connolly was correct in saying that Fresh Start will help connect these young men with services and resources, if they choose to accept the offer.  The case manager  can help them figure out what they want or need and how to get there.  As he shared last night, if they want help in getting  their driver's license, he can help guide them through the steps to obtain it.  If they want to complete their education, he can help identify the options for that and work with them to get enrolled.  If they want a job, he'll help connect them with employers.  

Our goal is for all nine of these young men to stop shooting.  Same for the next group that gets called in.  They're all on probation or parole, so this is a turning point for them.  Reports from other cities using this approach indicate that some people will  stop shooting and actively work with the case manager, some people will stop shooting but won't ask for further help, and some people will continue to engage in gun violence.    The Community Coalition and C-U Fresh Start are doing everything possible to make this work.  

Diane Marlin 

Alderwoman, City of Urbana

Member, Fresh Start Steering Committee

Fedupwithstatereps wrote on October 07, 2016 at 10:10 am

Thank you for trying something!  I am all for it!

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on October 07, 2016 at 11:10 am

Mr. Colson tossed rounds into a crowd.  He missed by chance   not by desire.


He got probation


Mr. Patton tossed rounds into a crowd


He missed by chance   not by desire


He got out in 8 months


Under the CJS with the current administration, deeds speak lounder than words.  Ms. Reitz can put on her "mean face" but it does not mean anything if she does nt back it up..........


and I am curious..............


what was the racial make up of this group of young men?


You wanna speak to that Yodler?

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 2:10 pm

What difference does it make what race they are? If anyone is willing to accept  help to turn their life around they should get it. Why start a controversy about something that has nothing to do with the issue? We have a major crisis in this community with people dying. There is no place for race-baiting in it.

mcannon1372 wrote on October 07, 2016 at 11:10 am

The state needs laws that provide minimum mandatory sentences for people who possess guns who can't legally possess them. Get caught with a gun, 5 years mandatory no good time. 2nd offense, 10 years. 3rd offense, life. Sentences to be served consecutively to any other sentences.

This program sounds well meaning, but these services should have been offered to these young men already in their previous dealings with the court system. 

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Even judges will tell you mandatory minimums are not effective. The only thing they have been good for are getting politicians elected. They have never been effective for solving crime problems.

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on October 07, 2016 at 3:10 pm

If Robbie Patton had served 5 yrs that young man would still be alive today.  Do you have a counter for that?

rsp wrote on October 07, 2016 at 7:10 pm

If he served two years you could say the same thing. What if he had been hooked up with services when he was released? What if his friend hadn't been assaulted? We don't know where the gun came from and how he ended up with it. What if that was changed.

What if the people who were serving alcohol at that party had decided maybe there was a reason we don't think kids should be drinking and so they didn't give it to the kids that night who ended up fighting.

Pick a random point in time. People make decisions all the time not knowing it could change their lives forever. What if George Korchev had left his house five minutes later? I could give you a hundred what ifs. A family will still be morning their child.

It still doesn't change the fact that mandatory sentences are not effective. You end up with overcrowded prisons and children without their parents who grow up to, guess what, commit crime. Having their parents around greatly reduces the likelihood of kids growing up to end up in prison. We have people in now who are serving effectively life for first-time drug offenses. They were not the kingpins the laws were designed for, they are low level people. For selling marajuana.

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on October 07, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Mandatory sentences are 100% effective on the people serving them.   You bring mandatory drug sentences into the picture.  I am talking about mandatory prison sentences for gun crimes......... remember it was the Democratic congress that declared the war on drugs..........................

map89 wrote on October 07, 2016 at 2:10 pm

I totally agree, McCannon.  Decades of plea bargaining and dropping weapons charges has created more gun violence in Champaign-Urbana.  We need to have a ZERO TOLERANCE stance with mandatory sentencing when a gun is involved.  We had our annual fall cookout a couple of weeks ago and out of the 8 couples in attendance, 6 of us already have property bought elsewhere and an exit plan to get out of Champaign County when we retire.  The other 2 couples are just waiting to see where their kids land after they graduate.  The violence in C-U shows no sign of ending.  We have decided to remove ourselves and head for safer ground.  Maybe if we institute mandatory sentencing and actually get tough on gang crime, these idiots may move up to Chicago.  (Even roaches scatter when you turn the light on.)

DoNotTread wrote on October 10, 2016 at 12:10 pm
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It was sure nice of them to give that white cop a fresh start after he got drunk and shot at someone at a Steak n Shake. They even gave his gun back!

Roanrider wrote on October 12, 2016 at 12:10 pm

Show me where it says "they gave his gun back." Nowhere does it say that.

DoNotTread wrote on October 12, 2016 at 9:10 pm
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All charges were dismissed and he is still employed with the Illinois State Police (taxpayer funded.) They gave him his gun back for several reasons. One, he wasn't convicted of anything that would prevent him from retaining his firearms. Two, cops are bad people and wanted him to have his gun back after drunkenly firing it at someone in a Steak n Shake parking lot. Another cop made the conscious decision to hand that pistol back to a man who tried to kill someone with it.

Roanrider wrote on October 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Today's headline plainly states that he is still on leave, pending a departmental investigation. If he is on leave, he has NOT been given his badge and Illinois State Police-issued firearm back. His own personal firearms are another story, your statement has nothing to do with those. As the wife of a former officer, I guarantee you that someone on leave does NOT have his state-issued firearm.

casemaker wrote on October 13, 2016 at 9:10 am

I believe the other witnesses at the scene could not be believed as their account of the incident did not match.   

DoNotTread wrote on October 13, 2016 at 10:10 am
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That's funny because they convicted Robbie Patton on a felony for doing the exact same thing and they didn't have credible witnesses either. Oh to be a white police officer. Must be nice to not have consequences for your actions.

Roanrider wrote on October 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm

SERIOUSLY? If you want to talk about no consequences for your actions, let's discuss our State's Attorney's habit of turning violent black youth back into the community with nary a slap on the wrist.