RICHMOND, Va. — There's a new effort to prevent gang-related violence in Central Virginia and across the Commonwealth.
Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is rolling out a program known as G.R.E.A.T., standing for Gang Resistance Education and Training.
The 15-week program is for teenagers who may be considered "at-risk" of gang involvement. Assessments who teens that may be considered "at-risk" are based a number of factors, including any previous involvements with DJJ, as well as their family's socio-economic status and address.
"A lot of youth join gangs for various reasons," said Deyonta Johnson, Violence Intervention Manager with the department's newly created Violence Intervention Unit. "The thing about violence and gangs, is it's at multi-systemic issue. And so, it requires a multi-systemic approach."
Earlier this year, G.R.E.A.T. held its first group in Petersburg. Richmond just started its first group.
Through the program, those with DJJ's Court Services Units go into communities, meeting with children to provide them basic resources and mental and behavioral support — as well as foster positive relationships between communities and law enforcement.
Children who go through the program are also paired with a mentor, trained to train students in problem-solving, conflict-resolution and workforce skills.
"We do know that matching youth to workforce and trade has been beneficial, making sure that they have resources that when they enter out, that their violence isn't the result of them lacking basic need items," Johnson said.
A recent report from DJJ suggests the number of juvenile detainments between 2021 and 2022 increased by more than 16%. The number of juvenile intake complaints between that time rose almost 25%.
Projects from the report suggest it may be higher come the end of 2023.
Johnson said the biggest challenge his team faces is influencing teens to turn away from gang activity that may already be present in their lives.
"Trying to motivate a youth to change, who doesn't feel the need to change, is one of our biggest obstacles. But it's something we're experts in. This is what we do. We work with young people all the time and part of our role is to try to show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel," Johnson said. "And if they work with us, and work alongside us, we will guide them through that process."
The 2022 report also suggests firearm and weapons complaints among juveniles reached a 10-year high.
Johnson said the department is planning on rolling out an initiative to address that issue within the next year.
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