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."