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Youth mentoring programs could be key in reducing carjackings

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Across the country, cities continue to struggle with how to combat an ongoing surge in carjackings. It's not just an effort to arrest those who commit the crime but also how to prevent it, especially since juveniles are increasingly those brandishing the guns and taking the cars. In Chicago, a small decline in the crime has encouraged some. There's also some hope that mentoring programs for young people will make a difference, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Carjacking numbers in Chicago are daunting. Last year, there were more than 1,800. However, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown says things could be heading in a different direction. Compared to last year at this time, carjackings declined by more than 20%.

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DAVID BROWN: We have people on the ground, we have people in the air and helicopters tracking and arresting carjackers.

CORLEY: Brown credits the reduction in part to a regional hijacking task force. While the numbers are lower, they are still well above pre-pandemic levels. What's alarmed officials here and elsewhere is the increasing number of juveniles involved, as NPR has reported in the past, some as young as 11, many armed with guns. Brown says in recent days, more than half of the carjacking arrests were people under 18 years old. Kim Smith, with The University of Chicago Crime Lab, says there are nuances. She says unseasonably cold weather the first weeks of the year may have played some part in the decline of carjackings in Chicago. She also says because the number of cases police clear is low, it's difficult to determine just who the carjackers are.

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KIM SMITH: In only 11% of carjacking incidents does CPD make an arrest.

CORLEY: Still, Smith agrees youth are a growing part of that small percentage. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues to say that young carjackers have to be held accountable, but the focus must also be on getting to the root of the problem to prevent the crime from happening.

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LORI LIGHTFOOT: Particularly when it comes to these juveniles. It cannot be arrest and release, arrest and release.

CORLEY: She says cities and the courts must support alternatives that aren't punitive, like community-based intervention efforts.

MARTIN ANGUIANO: This right here is our Bethel location Austin.

CORLEY: Martin Anguiano is talking about the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, an area hard hit by carjackings. He's coordinator of intervention programs for the organization BUILD Inc.

ANGUIANO: We work with young people that come from difficult environments. They have a lot of challenges, so they get - a lot of them get brainwashed by people on the streets. And so they get caught up. And so our job is to provide alternatives to the streets.

CORLEY: And one of those alternatives is called Scan, a city-funded program that BUILD and a few other agencies run. It provides intensive one-to-one counseling for young people involved in the justice system, linking them to mentors or so-called navigators. Mayor Lightfoot calls it one of the keys to rebuilding a safety net that was shredded during a pandemic that's disrupted lives, slowed down court systems and structured youth programs.

KIWAN POWELL: My name Kiwan Powell (ph). I'm 20 years old.

CORLEY: Powell was in and out of the juvenile courts when he was younger. A former gang member, he survived being shot, and he's been involved with BUILD since he was 16. He says although police and others offer several reasons why juveniles are increasingly a part of carjackings, he says for many, it's often all about status and impressing gang members and other young people with little thought about consequences.

POWELL: You know, you ain't thinking like that. You thinking like, oh, that's cool. I wonder how they're going to think about me if I get this car right here. You feel me then (ph)? Even though I don't know how to drive, I'm finna (ph) steal it, and I'm finna learn how.

CORLEY: Powell says he doesn't want his younger siblings to follow in his old footsteps, so he's made changes on his own. And for nearly a year now, he and his navigator Derrick Orr have worked to make sure he stays on the right track.

DERRICK ORR: Oh, man, we talk every day.

POWELL: Every day.

ORR: We eat to lunch together and, you know, I make sure you get to work and what you need, bro.

CORLEY: It's a close mentoring relationship with navigators. They know this work takes time. They offer all sorts of intervention. They keep in touch with parents and teachers, help young people navigate court programs. They often provide transportation, dole out gift cards. Most importantly, they keep in touch with the young person they work with. Powell, who attends an alternative school, is now a high school senior and also works as a dishwasher at a restaurant.

POWELL: He helped me get the job, I ain't going to lie. He helped me get everything. And he helped me get my ID.

CORLEY: Orr, who's 48, says his and many of the mentors' backgrounds are similar to Powell's.

ORR: Gangbanging, hustling, selling drugs, looking up to negative influences in the community.

CORLEY: Orr dropped out of high school but graduated later. He says it's those experiences that make the connection between the navigators and the people they mentor work.

ORR: We meet them where they at. And we can let them know some of our story and why we want to help you and how we can help you because we've been down that path. But also we don't glorify that in no sense. And you have to let them know the dangers of living this type of lifestyle. You have to change.

POWELL: The streets - they don't love you out here. Either it is you're going to die out here, or you're going to go to jail.

CORLEY: Die out here or go to jail. It's an analysis that the Chicago Crime Lab strikingly confirms. In its study of what happened to young people involved in carjackings 12 months later, it found they were 70 times more likely to be murdered than the average Chicagoan. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.