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A life beyond crime

A Jamaican citizen security program targets women involved in gangs

For Pauline Crooks, quitting the Montego Bay gang that had helped her to put food on the table for six years wasn’t a quick or an easy decision. The single mother of three continued showing up at her “workplace”— where the gangsters ran lottery scams—even after she joined a parenting course offered by the Citizen Security and Justice Program (CSJP), an initiative launched in 2007 by Jamaica’s government to bring down crime in the island’s most violent communities.

But one day something happened. It didn’t involve Crooks’ children or her family but a victim of a lottery scam, a specialty of Montego Bay criminal crews. This particular person was elderly, ill and at risk of losing her home. By then the parenting course, which covers topics ranging from how to manage money to anger management, had started to sway her. “I didn’t want my children to grow up like I did. I wanted them to have a better life,” she said.

Crooks did more than just leave the gang. A trainer saw in her the potential to become a social worker. With the CSJP’ support, she enrolled in a certificate course at the University of the West Indies. Crooks now works as a liaison between the program and communities in western Jamaica and coaches new parent trainers. Her next step: earning an associate college degree, taking advantage of a CSJP scholarship. “Sometimes I pinch myself,” said Crooks, a high school dropout.

Now in its sixth year, the CSJP is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, which has provided the Jamaican government $37.5 million in loans and grants over the past decade for crime prevention. In 2012 the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development made a grant for the equivalent of $11.3 million to help expand the program to a total of 50 communities.

The CSJP targets urban neighborhoods with risk factors such as gang presence, high youth unemployment rates and a generalized sense of anarchy. Many of these communities, such as Crooks’ Canterbury neighborhood, sprung up as informal settlements on the outskirts of cities. Over the years, as crime and violence worsened, some were literally taken over by gangs.

Drawing from international best practices, the CSJP helps communities gain the means to organize and mobilize in order to improve their living conditions and establish a law-abiding culture. The program focuses particularly on young people, providing them with job training opportunities. According to assessments by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, communities participating in the CSJP have seen sharp declines in homicides, shootings and violence-related injuries.

While an overwhelming majority of gang members are male—and most of the violent crime perpetrators and victims are young men—the CSJP makes a special effort to reach women. Arenica Stevenson, a community action coordinator, explains that in Jamaica’s most troubled communities households are often headed by a single parent, which is usually a woman. “If you can break the cycle with the mother, you can prevent it from passing on to the next generation,” said Stevenson.

Some women fall in with gangs out of desperation. Crooks lost a job as a security guard when the company she worked for went bankrupt. She couldn’t pay the rent or utility bills. Her children cried because they were hungry. So, she approached an acquaintance involved in a gang and asked for work. The job allowed her to make ends meet, but it wasn’t without perils. During her time with the gang she was shot at and a family member was abducted by a rival group.

Most women involved in gangs are recruited at an earlier age. Like many young Jamaicans brought up in poverty, Leticia Scarlett was exposed to domestic violence as a child. Her mother eventually ran away from her abusive husband, but she also mistreated her children. Scarlett joined a juvenile gang when was 14, shortly after she dropped out of school and her mother kicked her out of their home. For three years she lived on the streets, drinking, fighting and stealing.

The turning point for Scarlett came when she was arrested at 17. A policeman referred her to a social worker who talked to her about the CSJP. The teenager, who had enjoyed cooking when she was a girl, became interested in a chef training course. After attending cooking and baking classes for eight months—complemented with life skills training and remedial English and math lessons—she had progressed so much that she won a contest with a dish of her own creation, a yam and saltfish callaloo roll.

Scarlett’s outlook has changed radically. Like other young people in CSJP-sponsored job training programs, she will do an internship at a company or a government agency—in her case most probably at a hotel. She’s even set herself a five-year goal of opening her own restaurant. “I’m going to make something out of my life,” she said.

Not all young people arrive to the CSJP through the justice system. The program uses Jamaicans’ love of sports to attract participants to its Goals for Life program. “Jamaicans loooove football,” said social worker Melva Spence. “So we hold tournaments in the communities.”

Once potential candidates become involved in the competitions, they are screened to determine their skills and interests before they are placed in job training courses. Besides promoting a safe and healthy activity, Goals for Life offers at-risk youths who often can barely read or write an opportunity to make a living by learning a useful trade.

“If we can save one life, then it will be worth all of the money,” said Spence. “And I know we will save many more than one”.