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How Boston Brought Down Youth Crime

When it comes to the longstanding scourge of juvenile crime, Boston is a city in the forefront of proving the problem can be beaten.

A series of innovative programs here is widely credited with a dramatic 60 percent drop in violent crime among youths - results that led President Clinton to choose Boston as the site for yesterday's unveiling of his national juvenile-crime package.

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Among Boston's initiatives are programs that zero in on at-risk youths, crack down on those selling guns to juveniles, and build a close relationship between agencies handling youthful offenders. A startling crime statistic provides additional proof that the programs are working: No one under the age of 17 has been killed by gunfire since July 1995. By contrast, 10 juveniles died of gunshot wounds in 1990.

For its efforts, Boston is one of five cities the US Justice Department has selected as a national model for juvenile crime-fighting programs.

What's Boston doing right? Primarily, the city is focusing its resources on aggressive policing of youths considered most likely to commit crimes, says Jim Jordan, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department. "Targeted intervention is key," he says.

That philosophy undergirds programs such as the much-heralded Operation Night Light, in which probation officers pair up with police to keep close tabs on juvenile probationers. Under the program, police provide security to probation officers, driving them to homes of previous offenders to check that the juveniles are there by curfew. In turn, police officers on night patrol draw from the knowledge of the probation officers they are transporting. Because probation officers frequently know the youths on the streets by name and record, the pair can stop and arrest any juveniles they see violating their curfews. Operation Night Light sends a powerful signal to teen offenders that they will be held accountable even for minor infractions, criminologists say.

Another program, Operation Cease-Fire, focuses on the city's high-crime neighborhoods and tackles the difficult problem of stemming gang activity. Part of it gathers youthful offenders, whom police deem next in line to commit serious crimes, to meet with representatives of the Boston police, the county district attorney's office, the state attorney general's office, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others. At the meetings, the youths are told that authorities up to the federal level are watching them, that they will be arrested even for low-level violations, and that they will do serious time when caught.

The message: Law-enforcement authorities in this city have the resources and the will to shut down any gang they want to. Officials also publicize their crackdown on offenders: One youth was jailed for carrying a single bullet. Under Massachusetts law, a bullet is a weapon, and this parolee violated his probation by being in possession of a weapon.

"From a social-science perspective, it's very difficult to figure out what happened. But that message was heard and it was believed, and gang activity dropped off precipitously," says David Kennedy, a senior researcher at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has worked with Boston law-enforcement officials to design youth projects. "It's really quite remarkable."

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