Questions Surround $55 Million Program to Cut Violence in Chicago

Scott Zamost et al., CNN, December 3, 2012

On a chilly afternoon this fall, teenagers across Chicago’s South Side were busy at work, earning $8.75 an hour to hand out fliers with a message of non-violence.

“Our message that we’re giving out today is about being healthy,” said 18-year-old Lucia Eloisa. “One of the key pointers is about taking time to reflect and seek inner peace.”

Eloisa’s part-time job was paid for by an ambitious state-funded program to keep at-risk teenagers out of trouble. It pumped nearly $55 million into Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and three of its suburbs to stem unrelenting gang violence.

A four-month CNN investigation found that not only did the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) pay teens to hand out fliers promoting inner peace, it also paid these at-risk teens to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the governor, and even attend a yoga class to learn how to handle stress.

Earlier this year, state legislators passed a resolution demanding the state conduct an audit on the program. That audit is under way.

Supporters say the program kept kids off the streets of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods and helped expose inner city youth to a broader culture, as well as cultivate future leaders.

But critics wonder if it was just a waste of taxpayers’ money, considering that the city’s murder rate has risen since the program began two years ago.

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Pat Quinn became Illinois’ governor in 2009 in the wake of a corruption scandal that took down his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich. After serving out the rest of Blagojevich’s term, the former lieutenant governor narrowly won the Democratic primary to vie for a full term in 2010.

That fall, Quinn faced a tough challenge against his Republican opponent to retain the governor’s seat.

In October 2010—less than a month before the gubernatorial election—Quinn announced his Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which he said would “take on the root causes of violence” in Chicago and across Illinois by creating “about 3,000 part time and permanent jobs for young people so they have a positive way to go.”

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Quinn’s political opponents have questioned the timing of his announcement.

“I mean, we’re in a budget crisis,” said Illinois state Sen. Matt Murphy, spokesman for the Republican state appropriations committee. “We were back then. We have since been in a violence crisis in Chicago, and you look at this, and you say for political purposes, you’re taking precious and limited taxpayer dollars and spending them on political purposes rather than solving the violence problem in the city of Chicago. And it was wrong.”

Murphy believes that Quinn’s real motivation for implementing the program was to secure votes in Chicago’s heavily Democratic districts on the South Side.

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Murphy and other Republican legislators point to the fact that most of the program’s funding went to black neighborhoods in Chicago that were ultimately critical to Quinn’s election.

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Quinn ended up winning the 2010 election by less than one percentage point, largely due to the turnout of the black vote in Chicago.

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Politically motivated or not, it’s hard to argue that the nearly $55 million spent on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative helped stem violence in Chicago. Two years after the program was implemented, there have been 476 murders in the city, a nearly 20 percent increase over 2011.

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Records provided to CNN show that $54.5 million was spent on the NRI program, mostly through the governor’s discretionary fund, which doesn’t require legislative approval.

The only data on the program’s accomplishments come directly from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. The NRI states that it created more than 3,484 jobs, provided counseling for more than 3,100 children, and helped 1,175 ex-cons.

The NRI’s self-reported results are being examined by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago. {snip}

CNN reviewed hundreds of documents related to the program and conducted dozens of interviews with program participants which show how some of the money was spent:

NRI participants were paid $8.75 an hour, first to receive mentoring from adults, and then go out to pitch positive messages and hand out fliers in their neighborhoods.

Lazaro Vasquez, 18, said although he couldn’t explain how the message in the fliers he was handing out would help stop violence, he supported the program.

“I just know that I’m trying to do my best that I can (to) pitch that message to youth, and let them know that we’re trying to help the community,” he said.

In another instance, students earned $8.75 an hour to visit the DuSable Museum of African American History and to the National Museum of Mexican Art.

“It was an effort to expose the students to a broader perspective on the cultures in their neighborhood and provoke some discussion,” explained Dan Valliere, executive director of Chicago Commons, one of the lead agencies under the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

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Students were also paid to attend a yoga class as part of the program’s effort “to point them out of their comfort zone . . . think differently and become more a leader in their own neighborhood,” Valliere explained.

The NRI also paid teens from the Better Boys Foundation to march in the 82nd Annual Bud Billiken Parade on August 13, 2011, with Quinn, according to records and video of the parade.

“Their job was promoting positive messages, etc., which is what the parade is about,” a spokesman for Quinn said.

An audit of one of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative’s lead groups—The Woodlawn Organization—uncovered a “lack of clear accounting and record keeping” and “questionable decisions.” The group, which has a two-year contract, received $1.2 million before the state de-funded it.

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Others involved with the Chicago anti-violence initiative underscored the successes of the program—like keeping kids off the streets—while acknowledging more needs to be done.

“We engage with the kids and things of that nature, do booster training and get them life skills and coping skills,” said Lamont Coakley, an adult mentor. “It’s just limited on the funds. If we can get funded to hire all the youth, then it would work.

“Because if we really look at it, when they’re at their training, when they’re at work, they’re not shooting anyone.”

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Today, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative has been scaled back, with a much smaller budget of just $15 million. It’s also being managed by a different state agency.

And the jobs? A spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority said that’s being reworked to put “youth in more traditional employment and mentoring situations.”

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