Trading gangs and guns for a future

Can we get young men to give up the dead-end life of the streets?


HAKEEM JACKSON DOESN’T mince words. “Just a couple of years ago I was shooting at people,” he says.

A wiry 20-year-old with an affable bearing, Jackson is sitting at the Boston offices of Roca Inc., a nonprofit that works with young people who have been in and out of jail and run the streets with gangs. He was put on probation two years ago for selling marijuana on the condition that he enroll in school or find a job. A youth worker from Roca reached out and Jackson has been part of the organization’s program to help gang members and other young people at the margins turn their lives around. He’s now part of a work crew at the agency that does landscaping and other projects and is working on getting his high school equivalency diploma—he dropped out of South Boston High School in 10th grade.

He’s doing well, but the Roca youth workers and Jackson himself know that one small slip could change that. “If I fall back with them and go to jail again, I’m starting over,” Jackson says of the crew he ran with in his Dorchester neighborhood near Franklin Park. “I’m not looking to start over again.”

Plenty of programs target “at-risk” youth in tough neighborhoods. These efforts focus on keeping young people who could be tempted by the lure of gang life or the fast money of drug dealing from starting down that road. Roca and a set of other programs operating in Boston and other Massachusetts cities are taking on a much steeper challenge: getting those already involved with gangs and guns to shift onto a more productive—and peaceful—path.

The logic behind focusing on this population is straightforward. To make a meaningful dent in the havoc of urban gun violence, programs have to deal with those doing the shooting, not just those who could be drawn into that world. But getting this group to make sustained change is not easy. These are young people who already failed to respond to any earlier interventions that may have been tried.

Hakeem Jackson

When it comes to gun and gang violence in Boston, the situation today is a far cry from the bloody 1990s, when the city’s streets were overrun by gang wars fueled by the crack epidemic. In 1992, the city witnessed 152 homicides. Last year there were 46. But that number was up from 2015, when the city recorded a 10-year low with 40 homicides. And through mid-September of this year, homicides were up 40 percent over the same period last year, and total shootings, fatal and nonfatal, were up 18 percent, with 186 compared to 158 for the same period in 2016.

An array of programs like Roca are now in place to work with those who have been part of the gang-driven “noise,” which is believed to account for as much as half of the gun violence in Boston. They are employing a range of strategies that go beyond Band-Aid solutions, with lots of careful thinking and research evidence behind their programs. With palpable concern about an increase in gun violence, the stakes for these efforts seem particularly high.

Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who was part of the clergy effort in the 1990s that helped drive down gun violence in Boston, says today’s far lower homicide rate is little consolation to those in the swath of poor, largely minority areas where violence is heavily concentrated. “It may continue now in smaller circles than it did 20 years ago,” he says. “But it still continues, and you have families torn apart by it. It does not bode well for the health of neighborhoods and the health of the city.”


Growing up in the Lenox Street public housing development in Roxbury in the 1990s, Matt Jackson says drugs were a mainstay of neighborhood life. “If somebody wasn’t doing them, they was selling them,” he says. “Drugs was the norm.”

For Jackson, the norm was selling. He started dealing when he was 13. When he was 17, Jackson (who is not related to Hakeem Jackson) was arrested with a handgun and enough crack cocaine to trigger a serious trafficking charge. He served five-and-a-half years in state prison.

Listen to an interview with Matt Jackson.

“When I got out, of course I tried to work, but drugs was the norm,” he says. “I didn’t learn my lesson.” Jackson, who is now 34, worked various entry-level jobs, but was often dealing drugs at the same time. That changed three years ago when his girlfriend—the mother of his three-year-old daughter—was killed by gang crossfire while sitting in a car in the Lenox Street projects.

“From that point on, I just knew I couldn’t do anything to go back to prison,” says Jackson, who is raising his daughter as a single father. “I never cared for nothing the way I care for my daughter.” He stayed out of the drug business, but a series of low-paying jobs were not always convincing him he made the right call. That changed when he learned about an unusual program at a Dorchester organization.

Mark Culliton, a veteran nonprofit leader, says he was frustrated by what he saw as half-measures in many programs that aim to get former gang members and high-risk young men on track. Help often meant getting them into minimum wage jobs, but with inadequate support to gain the skills or education credentials to move up and earn a family-sustaining income. “We kept trying to give them low-level jobs that they fail out of and then keep the cycle going,” says Culliton.

The organization Culliton leads, College Bound Dorchester, launched a program last year with an audacious goal. Combining extensive support and high expectations, it aims to get young men like Matt Jackson through a two-year community college program. The program hires former gang members—it calls them “college readiness advisers”—to provide intensive mentoring and support. And it makes use of research on what works and doesn’t work with community college students, who are often the first person in their family to attend college.

Matt Jackson says “drugs was the norm” in his neighborhood growing up. He spent five-and-a-half years in prison, but now is a student at Bunker Hill Community College.

Community college students who arrive needing to take non-credit-bearing remedial education courses often never graduate. So College Bound Dorchester provides remedial courses to those who need them at its offices, with lots of support and tutoring, and only lets students enroll at community college when they’re ready for credit-earning courses. There is also a wealth of research showing students are much more likely to graduate from community college if they attend full-time, rather than mix part-time studies with work. That led to the program’s boldest element: requiring that all the students go to community college full-time—and paying them a weekly $400 stipend while they do.

The organization calls its program “Boston Uncornered.” The name refers to its literal goal of getting young men off the street corners where nothing good takes place, but it’s also a nod to the idea that these people often feel cornered by the choices they’ve made and circumstances they’ve grown up in.

Jackson is now one of about 40 students in the program; the organization hopes to ramp up and get 250 former gang members through a two-year college program. Jackson, who got his high school GED while in prison, finished his second semester at Bunker Hill Community College over the summer.

“I want to do some type of social work, targeting in my mind Department of Youth Services,” he says. “I could work with kids I could really relate with and they could relate to me and just keep them off a path of picking up a gun or thinking drugs are cool or any of that. Because I’m telling you, man, it’s a dead end. And it takes somebody real to really tell you that.”

The ambitious goal for participants reflects the organization’s belief that those causing the chaos in violence-plagued neighborhoods need a real ladder of opportunity in order to make lasting change. But it’s also about lifting up whole neighborhoods. The organization has dubbed the trouble-prone young men they work with “core influencers.” Though they may be small in number—the organization says about 400 to 600 hardcore players among the city’s 2,600 gang members cause most of the trouble in Boston—they have an outsized influence on the trajectory of entire neighborhoods.

Their turnaround, says Culliton, will have ripple effects that extend to everything from property values to economic development, to say nothing of relieving the psychic toll of fear they inject in neighborhoods. “It’s a small group of individuals that nobody ever effectively deals with that hold back whole communities,” he says. “This is, for me, the way to end intergenerational urban poverty.”

The program’s success will be evaluated by researchers from MIT and Northeastern University. Of the 40 who have enrolled since Boston Uncornered started in January 2016, 85 percent have not been arrested and 78 percent have remained with the program.

Matt Jackson

Jackson’s fall course schedule includes a statistics class, college writing, and an introduction to human services. A lot of the fieldwork for the human services class is going to involve visiting various programs around Dudley Square, not far from where he grew up. “I’m going to see a lot of people that I know that watched me grow up,” he says. “It’s going to feel really cool to be out there and people see me doing something different,” he says of the turn he has taken.  “To this day, people that know me, they don’t believe it.”


For Hakeem Jackson, the Roca program has provided the first glimmer of stability and support in what has been an untethered life of repeated trauma. Gang violence claimed his father, a member of the city’s notorious H Block gang, when Hakeem was three, and an older brother was gunned down in the house where he still lives when he was nine. His mother has a drug problem and he had lots of contact with state social service agencies as a child. “My mom never put us first. She was getting high,” he says. “I come in here, I have a peace of mind that I never had my whole life.”

Roca’s model for the hardcore population it targets is a four-year program that starts with “relentless outreach.” The organization looks to pull in gang members even before the young men are necessarily committed to trying to change. And once someone enters the Roca fold, the youth workers pull them back in if they fall off, something Jackson has done repeatedly, once disappearing for four months.

Now he’s a “team leader” on his work crew and talks about starting a landscaping business with the skills he’s acquired. “It took him forever to finally get on track,” says Shannon McAuliffe, the director of Roca’s Boston program. For most of those the organization works with, she says, “relapse is required.”

Roca has also incorporated extensive use of cognitive behavioral therapy into its work. The approach involves getting participants—nearly all of whom have experienced lots of trauma—to change patterns of behavior that are often driven by distorted thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that thoughts, emotions, and actions are interconnected and that positive behavioral change often requires helping individuals develop healthier, more balanced thinking and emotional regulation. Research with criminal offenders has shown it is one of the most effective approaches to reducing recidivism.

“I really was a hothead. I was a wild boy—knives, guns, shot at people and all that,” says Jackson. “Some of them—they really do work,” he says of the set of 10 cognitive behavior skills Roca has put at the center of its program. “Like ‘flex your thinking’—how to turn a bad situation into a good situation,” says Jackson. “Don’t let your emotions take control of it.”

One of the most daunting obstacles to the work done by Roca and other organizations is that those they engage with are often living in two worlds—the new one they’re trying to form and the one they come from, filled with all the influences that have led to so much trouble. “They are still in their environment while you’re trying to help them with the tools to move past it, essentially,” says Luciana Sousa, the Roca youth worker assigned to Jackson.

“I’m not going to lie—sometimes I do chill with the old crowd,” says Jackson, whose girlfriend had a baby six months ago. “But every time I find myself getting pulled back in by my collar, I separate myself for a little while and come back to work every day. I work my full week. Probably go chill with them for the weekend, don’t get me wrong. Drink a bottle, smoke a couple of joints. You feel me? As far as them being like, ‘Oh, it’s time to go shoot somebody,’ I’ll be like, oh, no, that’s not for me. I’ll be like, I got a job, I got a daughter now. I got too much to lose.”

Roca’s approach, which uses two years of intensive contact followed by two years of gradually reduced follow-up, is now the subject of a massive study being underwritten by an innovative social service funding model. Under the country’s largest “pay for success” experiment to date, public safety officials are directing to Roca about 1,000 young men like Hakeem Jackson, who are already connected to the state’s criminal justice system. Their recidivism rates and employment status over time will be compared with those of 1,000 control subjects with similar backgrounds. A set of philanthropic and for-profit investors are funding the 8-year, $28 million project, which started in 2014. The investors will be repaid—and receive added payments—based on the program’s success on its two key outcome measures.

In preliminary data, the program has an annual retention rate of about 80 percent, so two-thirds of those initially enrolled are still taking part after two years. More than 90 percent of them have not had a new arrest, and 85 percent of those placed in jobs have held them for at least six months.

“Our hope is we can demonstrate what it takes to do it,” says Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and CEO.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has emphasized that gang and gun violence ultimately can’t be curbed by law enforcement alone, says programs such as Roca and College Bound Dorchester are exactly the right long-term approach. For Walsh, the idea of second chances and redemption isn’t just something he believes in; he has lived it. Walsh has been very public about his battle with alcoholism and the years in recovery during which he rose from Dorchester labor official to state representative and then mayor of Boston.

He’s put his own stamp on the growing set of programs to help gang members make a positive turn with Operation Exit, an initiative Walsh launched soon after taking office that works to pull young Bostonians with gang backgrounds and criminal records into apprenticeships leading to skilled, union jobs in the building trades. There is also a component that trains young people for work in the technology sector.

Operation Exit has graduated four classes of nearly 80 people. “There’s no question that people can turn around their lives,” says Walsh, emphasizing the middle-class wages that the program can lead to. “I’ve seen too many success stories. We have to believe that every person can get on that path in life.”


The roster of well-thought-out programs in Boston shows some early promise of offering more than just stopgap approaches to gang and gun violence. But the programs don’t intervene directly in the ongoing conflicts on the city streets.

This summer, following a spate of shootings over the long Fourth of July weekend, Walsh convened a group of community leaders and law enforcement officials to consider ways to respond. After the closed-door meeting, which drew several dozen people to the mayor’s City Hall office, the participants emerged for a press briefing.

William Evans, the city’s police commissioner, said saturating known “hot spot” areas with added officers had failed to prevent a bloody weekend. “We had a lot of extra officers out there. Obviously that didn’t do the trick,” he said. Walsh spoke of a range of ideas aired in the meeting, including assigning a police car to city community centers at night to ensure safety there and other efforts targeting younger teenagers.

The fresh worries about violence raised the question of whether police were doing all they could to head off gang violence before it occurs. “My biggest concern is we seem to show up after the shootings,” Mattapan state Rep. Russell Holmes told the Boston Herald at the time. “We do peace walks after it happens. We really need to be addressing the tip of spear, addressing gang members in advance.”

In the 1990s, when the city was reeling from the crack-fueled gang battles and Boston regularly recorded more than 100 homicides annually, police and criminal justice researchers devised a novel approach to suppressing gun violence. Operation Ceasefire involved a targeted message and carrots and sticks directed at those driving the gun violence. Gang members were brought in for “call in” sessions with police, prosecutors, clergy, and various social service providers. They were told that police had them squarely in their sights and would use every tool and pursue every possible charge against gang members if anyone in their crew was caught using a gun. Clergy and service providers offered the carrots, vowing help with school or jobs for those ready to give up gang-banging.

Operation Ceasefire was credited with helping to drive a steep decline in homicides after its introduction in 1996. In its first year alone, the city saw a 40 percent decrease in homicides, from 96 in 1995 to 59 in 1996. By 1999, homicides in Boston bottomed out at just 31.

Ceasefire went on to gain national acclaim and has been used in a number of cities. In a review last year of research evidence on reducing urban violence, Christopher Winship and Thomas Abt of the Harvard Kennedy School concluded that “focused deterrence”—the law enforcement approach used by Operation Ceasefire—“has the largest direct impact on crime and violence, by far, of any intervention in this report.”

Rev. Ray Hammond, chairman of the clergy-led Ten Point Coalition that formed in the 1990s to help address gang violence, was at the July summit at City Hall. He said Ceasefire, which the city has shown an on-and-off attachment to, came up in the meeting, with a particular focus on how it might be updated for the social media age, where gang beefs sometimes now play out first on Snapchat and groups are less geographically rooted than in the past.

“I think people have moved more to the carrot side, so you have things like Operation Exit—really focused on getting kids out of gang life, into unions, into jobs,” Hammond said following the meeting. “We also could do more on the soft-stick side,” he said, referring to the Ceasefire message about the swift and certain law enforcement consequences of gun violence.

Dan Mulhern, a former prosecutor who led the gang unit in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, now directs the mayor’s Office of Public Safety. Mulhern took part in Ceasefire “call ins” as a prosecutor and says he always felt the lack of well-developed paths out of gang life was a downside of the effort.

Not only are things like Operation Exit now in place, Mulhern says the program really represents “the evolution of Operation Ceasefire.” Twice a year, he says, the city convenes “call in” meetings in which those who have been involved in gang activity are told about the opportunity to get into a union apprenticeship. With police quietly standing in the back of the sessions, he says, the alternative for those not interested in a more positive path is clear.

“We didn’t get away from that,” Evans says of the Ceasefire message. “Maybe the tactic isn’t calling them into a room, but that dialogue’s going on every day on the street between our gang officers and kids.”

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans on one of his regular “peace walks” in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. “We’ve had an uptick in shootings, but we’ll get a hold on that. It’s not like the city is out of control,” he says. (Photograph by Michael Jonas)

Evans, who has made outreach to the heavily-minority neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence a top priority, says he’s reluctant to employ Ceasefire’s tactic of an explicitly delivered threat in formal sessions. “We don’t want to ruin the trust and respect we have with the kids,” he says. “I don’t think we have to be going to drastic means to terrorize kids in these neighborhoods.”

Police command staff convene a weekly meeting to review current intelligence on gang activity, and Mulhern’s public safety office holds a monthly session with representatives of roughly 30 nonprofit agencies and public safety offices to review recent trends.

“We’ve had an uptick in shootings, but we’ll get a hold on that,” says Evans. “It’s not like the city’s out of control.”

Gerard Bailey, the deputy superintendent who oversees the police department’s 70-member gang unit, says this summer’s spate of shootings prompted some worry, but he also thinks it’s important not to view everything through the lens of dry statistics. “We’re always concerned. There’s victims’ families that are affected by this and the people that are committing these crimes—their families are affected by this,” says Bailey. He echoes Evans’ view that violence in the city isn’t on a sudden upward spike. But when it comes to the toll of gun violence, Bailey says, “zero’s the goal and one is too many.”


After 20 years on the streets, Matt Jackson says he’s lost track of the number of people he knows whose lives have been lost to gang gunfire. “Too many to count,” he says, lamenting the fact that funeral directors in the city’s black community know the various gangs because they are so often handling burial arrangements for their members. Even more dispiriting, says Jackson, is the fact that lots of those caught up in the violence don’t want to be.

“A lot of these kids don’t want to do this stuff,” he says. “It’s all about leadership and who younger guys have to look up to as role models. We’re basically destroying our communities out here.”

Despite the brutal toll taken by gang and youth violence in urban areas, the commitment to comprehensive efforts to deal with it isn’t always clear. In 2012, the state launched a program directed at those young people most likely to be involved as perpetrators or victims of gun violence. The Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) funds outreach programs in 12 Massachusetts cities targeting “proven risk” young residents, aged 17 to 24. College Bound Dorchester and Roca programs in Chelsea and Springfield are among the recipients of SSYI funding.

An early evaluation by outside researchers in 2014 showed that those engaged in an SSYI-funded program were 58 percent less likely to face incarceration than those with similar backgrounds who were not reached by one of the programs. The analysis also said each $1 spent on the program in Boston and Springfield yielded about $7 in crime-related savings in police, court system, and other costs.

In the 2018 budget passed this summer, however, the Legislature cut the program by 35 percent, reducing its funding to $4.25 million.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been a strong supporter of SSYI, filed a supplemental budget proposal in August that would restore its budget and even increase it slightly over the 2017 appropriation with an additional $3 million.  The cut by the Legislature “was disappointing,” says Marylou Sudders, Baker’s secretary of health and human services, who oversees the program. But she chalked it up to the tough budget climate and said she did not view it as a “philosophical questioning of the importance of the program” by lawmakers. Sudders says the administration is hopeful that legislators will restore the funding. In the meantime, she says, she is holding off on executing cuts to the programs that rely on the funding.

Culliton, the College Bound Dorchester director, says when people question the idea of paying gang members to go to college, “The first thing I say is, we’re already paying more than we’ll ever pay” through our program. Culliton says that between the cycling in out of prison—at a cost of more than $50,000 per year—and demands on public safety, courts, and the probation and parole systems, research shows that the young men his organization is targeting cost the state about $100,000 a year. “And the outcome of that is that they’re a gang-involved youth the next year and the next year and the next year,” he says.

“We’re spending money on these kids,” says Culliton. “The question is how do we want to spend it?” He says College Bound Dorchester had identified 65 “currently active guys” in Boston gangs who it could have brought into the Boston Uncornered program this summer, but only had funding to add 10 new students.

“These guys are ready to choose a different way and start giving to the Commonwealth instead of taking,” he says. “Even if you don’t care about them,” he says of those who have often been the cause of considerable mayhem, “if you care about the grandmother or the kid growing up in their neighborhood, we have to deal with this population. Whether you believe they are deserving or not, if you care about the other people that they are impacting in the community, you have to do something to engage them.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“I’m not going to say everyone is going to stop what they’re doing and just run to the program,” Matt Jackson says about College Bound Dorchester. “But I know there’s kids who want out,” he says of the dead-end life of the streets. “Trust me. I’m here, but there’s hundreds of me out there.”