PINE BLUFF, Ark. – Residents of Jefferson County gathered Tuesday night to discuss solutions to youth violence. Officials and citizens interviewed national experts on preventing gang violence and improving the juvenile justice system.
“It gives us the opportunity to think outside the box,” Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods said.
Pine Bluff native Berinda Eugene works with children and said the event meant a lot to her.
“It actually says that our community cares about our young people as well as our future,” Eugene added.
When the Gang Reduction Initiative of Pine Bluff (GRIP) was created last year, its president, Sheriff Lafayette Woods, knew help was needed.
“What we’re doing right now isn’t working,” the sheriff admitted. “Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first key, and we have done that.”
The GRIP has a three-pronged approach: prevention, intervention and repression. To push prevention, GRIP worked for weeks to organize the forum with experts from Virginia and Delaware with a combined 98 years of experience in the field of juvenile justice to share what they learned.
“We have a common interest, a common goal, and that is to reduce violence, especially with our minors,” Woods said.
Guest speakers included Michelle Darling, Robert “Bob” Bermingham and John A. Tuell.
Michelle Darling, Senior Program Director and Senior Consultant for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.
Bob Bermingham is currently an independent consultant focusing on juvenile justice topics such as juvenile probation practices and the treatment of youth and families involved simultaneously in the juvenile justice and child protection systems.
John A. Tuell is currently the Executive Director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice of the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.
Bermingham said: “We know why children today commit crimes. It’s no secret like it has been in the past, and it’s not just that they’re evil, but there are real reasons why they make the decisions they make.
He suggested assessments and screenings the first time a child touches the system to identify underlying factors influencing a child.
“We owe it to kids who are really crying out for some level of assistance through their behavior that we do everything we know that can potentially but not always produce the best opportunities for them,” Bermingham insisted.
He also said that no data can complement what the community can do.
“The answer to gangs if there is a gang problem here, and the data suggests it, is in this room. It’s a community response.
Berinda Eugene participated in it because when she returned to Pine Bluff, she noticed that it had changed from when she was a child.
She said: “The way I see it is that if I don’t do my part to be part of the solution, our future, which is our young people, probably won’t have the chance that I had growing up in Pine Bluff.”
And securing a future with discussion and application is what parents, educators and lawyers hope for.
In the words of Sheriff Woods, “To make sure that Pine Bluff in Jefferson County becomes a place where you can raise a family, you can raise your kids, but also you can just live.”
According to the National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, a federal grant helped make the reunion possible and other Arkansas counties like Pulaski will see the benefits of the grant over the next two and a half years.