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Murderers give real-life insight on steering youth away from violence, prison

ACADEMY – A panel discussion last week addressing gun violence bypassed the usual suspects and put actual murderers on stage for their real insight. 

The discussion, dubbed a “Dinner Table Among Thieves,” was held at the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation’s West Center at 724 Union Blvd. 

The panel was put together and presented by Darren Seals and his Sankofa Unity Center, which offers mentoring and training. Seals too was once a shooter – and a target: He’s been shot 13 times. He did time. 

Three of the panelists spent more than 20 years in jail for murder. They answered Seals’ call Wednesday to tell what they know about stopping killers and would-be killers. 

“The only way you’re going to fix the streets is with the guys who messed up the streets,” Seals said. 

“We know we need to stop killing each other, but kids are getting killed almost every day, so the question is, how do we do stop it? It’s not about money, it’s about resources. The kids need resources,” Seals said.

Also on hand were Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and her First Assistant Circuit Attorney, Serena Wilson-Griffin. Seals is contracted to mentor defendants who are assigned to Gardner’s crime and incarceration diversion program. St. Louis District 22 Public Defender Mary Fox also attended. 

Jamila Hodge, a veteran prosecutor and director of the Reshaping Prosecution program at the Vera Institute in Washington, is also working with the circuit attorney’s office here. 

The institute uses statistics to justify data-driven alternative sentencing and decarceration in its opposition to mass incarceration. Hodge and the institute’s program associate, Kelsey Reid, presented stats and findings at the beginning of the discussion. Some of their data back Seal’s claim that resources would help curb violence.

“A survey in Chicago found that it is jobs that would get them to put the guns down,” Hodge said. That finding is also supported, she said, in a book titled “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and a Road to Repair.” 

Written by Danielle Sered, it lists four core drivers of violent crime: inability to meet one’s needs; feeling of shame; insulation; and exposure to violence. 

Those are the same circumstances of incarceration, Hodge said, which negates rehabilitation. 

“So our way of addressing crime is to send people to a place with the exact same core drivers [of violent crime], and then we expect them to come home and do something different,” Hodge said. 

Panelist Victor Ali’s story that he tells youngsters about the horrors of prison is the kind of insight that Seals said could get youths to drop their guns. 

Ali spent 30 years in prison for murder. Prison, Ali said, is no joke.

“It’s cold-blooded, it’s dangerous in there … they will kill your babies … it’s either kill or be killed …

“The insanity that goes on in prison is something that you cannot even fathom. … People  committing suicide, guys getting their heads bashed in with baseball bats like watermelons, guards sitting there watching one of your family members get repeatedly raped in the shower and ain’t nothing that can done about it.” 

Gardner’s diversion program seeks to keep young defenders from becoming killers. Seals is contracted to mentor youths who are on that path. In addition to mentoring, his center offers skill training in plumbing, electrical work and carpentry. 

“If you out here doing something bad, she’s going to get you, but if it’s a petty crime, she will try to get you on track,” Seals said of Gardner.

Through the Reshaping Prosecution program, Hodge and Reid have determined that incarceration isn’t necessarily a deterrent to violent crime and a path to safety.  

In New York, for example, Hodge said, there has been a 77 percent decline in major crimes and a 57 percent drop in decarceration. 

“Incarceration is not an effective deterrent to crime,” Hodge said, pointing to a Department of Justice study by its National Institute of Justice arm that also focuses on statistics and research.

Earlier in the day, Seals met with judges and other attorneys at St. Louis University Law School to get their insight and offer his. 

“What I need people to realize is that if people give us resources, and show kids how to be like them, the crime will stop, and sitting in boxes isn’t rehabilitation,” Seals said.

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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