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Editorial: Worthy intervention aims to keep young offenders alive and out of prison

Trying to understand the roots of crime is one thing, but inviting young offenders to a gathering in an effort to keep them from killing each other, along with innocent bystanders, is quite another. Niagara Falls law enforcement and members of the District Attorney’s Office took that step when they spent an hour with eight young men seemingly determined to become another statistic – in jail, or dead.

The meeting took place July 13 in the Niagara Falls Public Library under a state-sponsored program called GIVE – Gun-Involved Violence Elimination. It has been used in 17 counties since 2014.

News staff reporter Thomas Prohaska was allowed to sit in on the meeting and later interview attendees on the condition that they would not be identified or have their criminal records revealed.

Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto told the young men that “they are considered among the potentially most dangerous offenders in Niagara Falls.” The program aims to impart another important truth: crime doesn’t pay. It can result in a long prison sentence or a violent end.

Niagara and Erie counties have been holding such meetings at various times since 2015. They work from an exclusive invitation list, though not one anyone should seek to be on. These are young offenders already on probation or parole who are determined to stay in trouble. The young men might avoid what Assistant District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffmann, Niagara County’s chief prosecutor of violent crimes, warned could happen: either seeing their mothers or grandmothers in her office in tears “because you’re dead.” Or in a courtroom, in which case Hoffmann promised not to be smiling.

They should heed the free legal advice from Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. on long, mandated sentences in federal court. Or the promise by Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek, in an interview on the message of the meeting: “We want you to stop your behavior. You will get no plea. We will try your case, and you will go to jail, or we’re going to be prosecuting someone because you’re going to be dead.”

These young men were offered a chance to break the cycle of violence. As Richard Thomas, of the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers, said as he handed out plastic forks, they are at a fork in the road. They would do well to take the one leading out of crime and into law-abiding lives.

If they take the good advice of law enforcement and former felons who turned their lives around, the impact could ripple across the community in which about 20 people are believed to account for most of the criminal gunfire.

The information came from two Niagara University researchers who delved into the data and mapped Niagara Falls police incident reports. Their findings showed a tangled web of interconnected lives bound by bullets, with Niagara and 19th Streets as the epicenter.

The Rev. Raymond Allen, an African-American clergyman from the Falls, presided at the meeting and told the offenders: “Our community will not tolerate violence. Our community needs you safe and alive, and most of all, free.”

For their sake, and the city’s, we hope the message sinks in.

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