CU Boulder finds community outreach helps prevent gang violence in Denver

Gangs have been part of Kelly Mahana’s family for generations, and it’s at the forefront of some of his earliest memories.

At 5 years old, Mahana witnessed his father’s murder. At 10, he committed his first felony. Throughout his life he struggled with addiction, suffering three near-fatal overdoses.

Mahana spent more than half of his life in prison, including 13 years in the Colorado Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to second-degree kidnapping.

When Mahana got out, he thought he’d go back to prison right away. It was the only life he knew, and without any education or work experience, he couldn’t sustain a life outside his gang or the prison system.

But Mahana didn’t go back to prison. Through a few key interactions, opportunities and community support, Mahana overcame addiction and distanced himself from his gang. He worked two full time jobs at nonprofits helping people like him for more than three years until he saved up enough money to open his own sober living home in Denver.

“It’s unreal,” Mahana said. “Some days I wake up and just start crying because I remember for so long that I didn’t ever think I was gonna get out of prison.”

Mahana was one of many current and former gang members who participated in a study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder. The goal was to find out whether community initiatives can help reduce youth gang violence in Denver.

The study focused on the Gang Violence Reduction Initiative, a program launched in Denver in 2009 after Darrent Williams, a cornerback for the Denver Broncos, was fatally gunned down in an alleged gang-related conflict in a downtown nightclub. GRID uses multidisciplinary teams and street outreach workers to intervene and prevent gang violence.

“This is the foremost gang prevention in the Denver area, so it was important to determine if it works or not,” Sociology Professor David Pyrooz said. “Should our taxpayers be investing tax dollars into a program like this? Is there a return on the investment economically, does it benefit people socially and psychologically? Those are important questions to answer.”

The study utilized a random control trial with two groups, one with people assigned to GRID and the others who continued on as usual, for example, on probation or pretrial supervision.

The study ultimately found that people who received GRID services were 70% less likely to commit violence. On the flip side, GRID participants were also three times more likely to identify as gang members at the end of the study period than those who did not participate.

Mahana said it’s counterproductive to simply tell young people to stop being in a gang and to go to school, especially when some 15 or 16 year old teenagers he works with can’t even spell their name and react badly to the idea of school because it’s the last place they want to be.

Instead, Mahana encourages their interests and suggests they move in a different direction. He asks them what they like to do, like sports or music, and takes them to a place where they can pursue it.

“For me, it’s not saying ‘you need to stop that.’ It’s saying, why don’t you be the first millionaire from your hood?” Mahana said, emphasizing it’s about helping them find a way out rather than scolding them for where they are.

Pyrooz said there’s a national conversation about how to prevent gang violence, particularly in youth, in more comprehensive ways than police crackdowns and arrests. Community support and informal social control can help a lot, he said.

“The reason that people don’t commit violence or don’t act on some of their impulses is more because they’re worried about how their parents are gonna react or how their friends are going to react or others,” Pyrooz said. “So being able to engage with community, engage with different aspects of the government, is critical to being able to prevent youth violence.”

During his childhood, Mahana said he was searching acceptance and wanted to fit in. Because his mother was Mexican and he was white with blue eyes, he said he stuck out even more and acted twice as reckless to gain recognition.

Mahana was bounced around between family members as a child growing up in California, and his mom left him when they moved to Colorado when he was 12. Mahana was basically homeless, moving frequently to different group homes or juvenile detention facilities. During the entire time he spent in prison, he only had three visits.

“I was searching for love and acceptance, and I wanted to fit in but I never felt like I fit in,” Mahana said, later adding, “I was cold inside. I was heartless, I hated myself and everyone around me and I wanted everyone else to feel my pain.”

Mahana said the realization he hated himself pushed him to take responsibility for his actions and life. He said there wasn’t a single “aha” moment, but a series of events and experiences while in a halfway house and working in his jobs that pushed his dedication to stay focused on his goals.

“I hope this (study) will shine a brighter light on community organizations and the impact that hiring people with lived experience can have,” he said.

Since 2020, Pyrooz said the homicide rates in Denver have practically doubled, and in 2021, Denver logged the highest number of murders since 1981, partially due to rising gang violence.

“I do think the (Denver) metropolitan area is sort of like this laboratory where we’re going to find out what works and what doesn’t, and it could be beneficial not just locally, but to other cities in Colorado and across the nation,” Pyrooz said.

Source: Read Full Article