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How Urban Peace Institute Is Building a New Vision for Justice and Safety

UPI believes that public safety should be redefined by communities that experience over-policing and violence.

In December 2020, newly-elected Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón unveiled sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County. These groundbreaking changes were a direct result of decades of tireless advocacy, education, awareness-raising and research done by activists, grassroots organizations and community members in Los Angeles County. Among these grassroots groups were the Urban Peace Institute (UPI), a grantee in our Community Well-Being portfolio, which has championed community-led solutions to public safety, justice and public health for over 17 years.

We spoke with Fernando Rejón, executive director of Urban Peace Institute, on November 24, 2020. UPI’s work is leading-edge, especially their peacemaker and gang-intervention programs. This work is also upheld by the Los Angeles Intervention Coalition, other grassroots groups and the community members themselves.

One voice. That's a difference maker. So many different people speaking in one voice,” he said. And the loudest voice must always be that of the community residents, he insisted. Our conversation with Fernando Rejón has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gang intervention doesn’t rely on law enforcement, but on community relationships and your credibility as a peacemaker to engage individuals who might be engaged in the life of violence and offer them alternatives.

Fernando Rejón

Cal Wellness: Can you briefly tell our readers about the Urban Peace Institute? What's unique about your approach?

Fernando Rejón: Urban Peace Institute wants to reimagine public safety, transform the criminal justice system and hold systems accountable for how they impact communities. We want to close the community to prison pipeline, which has generated an economy around criminal justice and mass incarceration, and to reinvest those dollars in community infrastructure and community-based economy. That way, our community residents can get involved in safety, health, and other economic opportunities and thrive.

We know that transformation is possible. We’ve seen it. We've seen gang intervention reduce homicides by over 40% when done in collaboration with other grassroots groups, with law enforcement, the Mayor's office and the council offices at the table.

What’s unique about our approach is that we don’t just do literature reviews and academic research, which is an important piece of our work. We actually walk with those who are doing the work. We create platforms for their voices to be heard, we listen and generate solutions with them in order to transform systems. Ultimately, we’re creating pathways for leaders in these communities to become the leaders we need to transform systems and redirect dollars.

Fernando Rejon talks about the history of policing in the U.S. and why we need to reimagine policing. [Read all audio clip transcripts here.]

You use a public health approach to address community violence and you focus on five strategies: prevention services, gang intervention, re-entry and transitional services, smart justice and law enforcement. Can you tell us about your gang intervention work?

Fernando Rejón: When we talk about our work, we always use the freeway analogy where the freeway is the life to incarceration or death due to violence. On this freeway you have on-ramps. We need people to wait at these on-ramps, redirect those who are trying to get on that freeway and send them back into the community. This is prevention work.

Gang intervention, on the other hand, intervenes with the population that’s already gang involved or those likely to commit violence. Our peacemakers intervene and engage in conflict mediation, provide alternatives to violence, and provide support, counseling services and opportunities they weren't aware of or never had access to. The goal is to get them to consider slowing down when they're on that freeway and getting them to an off-ramp. But that’s not enough. We also need to walk them down and reintegrate them back into the community. Because there's stigma you have to address once you've been on that freeway for awhile.

Gang intervention is key because it doesn’t rely on law enforcement, but on community relationships and your credibility as a peacemaker to engage folks that might be engaged in the life of violence and provide them with alternatives. Most of the time, it's just law enforcement that is focusing their attention on them. It’s completely different when teams of intervention providers are constantly out there, engaging with them in a proactive, positive and peaceful way with a message that is credible. It changes the dynamics. People are more interested because they feel like someone cares about them. Because someone is ready to talk to them as an equal, not as an adversary or as a perpetrator.

You’re well known for your Urban Peace Academy, which trains peacemakers and gang-intervention workers. What kinds of results have you seen thus far?

Fernando Rejón: We’ve had gang intervention for a long time, long before Urban Peace Institute was founded. We're standing on the shoulders of giants, the first folks to blaze a trail for peacemakers in Los Angeles and across the country. But there needed to be a training academy to help professionalize the field, standardize the curriculum and create standards of conduct and practice for intervention workers to abide by. The Academy has served as an organizing platform, which has allowed intervention workers to build strong networks, to leverage resources, to define the work, to make sure that there was multi-ethnic understanding. Black and Brown working together on what the mission of violence reduction should be.

The Academy has not only helped to train and professionalize gang intervention and street outreach nationally, but is a career pathway for formerly incarcerated and gang-involved people to contribute to and come back to their communities. The Academy's curriculum is led by practitioners. It’s not led by academics. It's not led by me. It's led by folks that come from the lifestyle. And then we bring other professionals to support them, as well. But there has to be a voice and a platform for the practitioners to help shape the field of violence reduction, violence prevention, and justice reform.

The Academy has helped lead to the creation of the Los Angeles Intervention Coalition, which is a 16-member group of frontline intervention agencies and groups that are advocating for the $54 million of the funding that was taken from LAPD to be reinvested into gang intervention services. It’s necessary. Gang intervention workers have not had a significant raise in 10 years. We're asking to go from 115 peacemakers in Los Angeles to 500, and from 40 ambassadors to 250 ambassadors.

Gang intervention workers are essential workers, tasked with delivering food to community members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the peacemakers’ work?

Fernando Rejón: Our peacemakers and intervention workers continue to do the violence interruption work, but they’re now also doing virus interruption. They are the last line of defense because they can engage the most vulnerable population—the population that no one's addressing, the ones that are invisible, that go under the radar.

It made sense for them to go out and pass out PPE and be that credible source of public health education because there's not a lot of trust in government mandates in many communities. They've been really pulling double duty right now as essential workers. Los Angeles recognized their work by classifying them not only as essential workers, but also as emergency personnel during the pandemic.

Can you tell us about UPI’s youth justice advocacy work?

Fernando Rejón: I can tell you about the Voluntary Probation Program, also known as WIC 236, which placed law enforcement in our schools. We published a report about it. See, the Los Angeles County Probation Department had gotten very big and they had many probation officers. Meanwhile, the number of young people being detained sharply declined. So, the Probation Department put their officers into schools, called it “voluntary probation,” and had them act as mentors and counselors to young people. But these young people were not on probation. Why should they have to come in contact with probation officers?

They did this to maintain their large budgets and maximize their funds. Right now, I believe the program costs somewhere close to $750,000 per young person. Because there are fewer than 700 young people detained in Los Angeles County now. That's a huge waste of money.

As we look to shrink the Probation Department and create a Department of Youth Justice, these dollars need to be redirected to building community-based infrastructures and alternatives that focus on healing and the continuum of care such as youth development opportunities, pre-arrest diversion, gang intervention, homeless outreach, and hospital-based intervention. That’s the kind of system, workforce and economy that we need to build. It has to be a stark 180 from the impact the systems of incarceration and criminal justice have had on people in our community.

What are your top three policy recommendations for youth justice reform?

Fernando Rejón: Shrink and end juvenile probation in Los Angeles County, create a new Department of Youth Justice, which was actually what the supervisor spoke about today, and implement alternatives to incarceration. We need to stop focusing on punitive measures and incarceration and instead implement solutions that take into account trauma, healing and care.

You do public policy and administrative advocacy work as well. Can you tell us about your advocacy work?

Fernando Rejón: With our smart justice programs, we look at the nexus between criminal justice reform work and violence prevention work. Smart justice holds systems accountable and helps redefine, recreate and reimagine the justice system to focus more on care and healing than on law enforcement and punitive measures. Our goal is to change the national narrative about justice so that it is no longer focused on punitive laws. Punitive laws do not necessarily generate safety.

Fernando Rejón talks about relationship policing and changing the mission of American policing.

What was your proudest achievement in the last couple of years?

Fernando Rejón: I’m proud of the work that we've been doing around justice reform with our advocacy partners, organizations like Children's Defense Fund, Youth Justice Coalition and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Los Angeles is pushing hard for what we need and though we have a long way to go, Los Angeles is reimagining what justice, what safety and what health look like.

Together, we’ve been advocating for redirecting funds, shrinking the probation department and pushing the youth justice narrative as well as the need for peacemakers. I think this work has helped re-shape a narrative in Los Angeles County and it has had reverberations across the country. You can see that the narrative has shifted from the last election. The justice reform movement is very strong and the voters are behind it.

I’m also proud to be part of the Los Angeles Intervention Coalition, which brings together 16 gang intervention organizations to advocate for funding for their communities during this time. I haven't seen it yet where you have that many organizations get together and speak on one accord for what will benefit not just themselves, but the entire community. This is an extremely timely time to work together. Because, if we can't do it now, it's never going to happen. Now is the time for all of us to push, to get out of our comfort zones, to be leaders for our community and get the resources that we need.

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