EDITORIAL: Project Safe Neighborhoods could put large dent in crime

Apr. 11, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The recent spate of murders and violent crime — it began, you’ll recall, just before Christmas — in our community prompted a growing tide of disbelief, outrage, bewilderment and anger.

It prompted reaction and responses from elected bodies and grassroots groups; we all took pause and asked: “Why?”

And: What can we do?

Collectively, we’re still trying to find answers, but one program — Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal effort to reduce gun and gang crime across the United States — definitely is a great start.

District Attorney Vernon Stewart, who oversees the judicial district that includes Lee and Harnett Counties, has been leading the effort to bring the program here. Project Safe Neighborhoods works to network existing local programs targeting gun crime. By linking the resources and efforts of federal, state and local agencies, and by providing additional tools necessary, PSN has been hugely successful in other communities by identifying and targeting the worst of the worst of the criminal element in communities.

According to federal officials, PSN has, since its inception in 2001, devoted more than $2 billion to curbing violent crime. The funds are used by local law enforcement to, among other things, “hire new federal and state prosecutors, support investigators, provide training, distribute gun lock safety kits, deter juvenile gun crime and develop and promote community outreach efforts, as well as to support other gun- and gang-violence reduction strategies.”

Its methodology is simple: determine the baddest of the bad in a community. Since most of those people are already on probation or parole for previous criminal activity, you compel them to come to a “call-in,” where law enforcement, community agencies and community leaders present them with two clear options.

One, go straight. Do so, and we’ll work with you to keep you straight and help you.

Two, break the law, and risk the full resources of the feds and end up serving hard federal time.

In discussing the unveiling of the program, Stewart said, “We’ll ask everyone to work together — law enforcement, probation and parole offices, county, city — to discuss the people who continue to come up on the radar screen and identify those repeat offenders. Those are the ones who will be targeted and offered this way out of crime. We’ll provide many community resources and community leaders [to support them]. But if they choose not to take advantage of the program, they will face the heavy hand of the law and go to prison [with] a very long prison sentence.”

Project Safe Neighborhoods isn’t an immediate knee-jerk reaction to our recent crime wave. It’s been in the works for some time. But Stewart’s announcement — which included his estimation that the first call-in will take place this coming summer — is good and welcome news. Communities that have utilized PSN have seen violent crime rates drop by 50, 60 and even 70 percent.

Sanford Police Chief Ronnie Yarborough, who also has been heavily involved in implementing the program here, said, “Our goal is to bring these violent offenders to justice and to make every effort to get these persons off the street unless they want to go down the proper road.”

Stay tuned for more news about the program — and, we hope, for safer neighborhoods.