Steven Johnson’s Community Violence Intervention Work is Personal

    City of Baltimore Gun Violence Prevention Strategy (GVRS) YAP Program Director Steven Johnson recognizes staff and program participants at YAP Making Social Change Happen Awards event, held in October 2023

    Baltimore, MD — When Steven Johnson saw a job ad for Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Baltimore Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS) Program Director, he wasted no time in applying.

    “I immediately printed my resume and walked it to the YAP office,” he said. “I put the resume in [YAP Regional Director] Craig Jernigan’s hand.”

    Founded in 1975, YAP is in its pre-50th anniversary year of partnering with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and other systems in 35 states and Washington, D.C. to provide trauma-informed, culturally/linguistically responsive community-based individual and family wraparound services as an alternative to youth incarceration and residential care.  In recent years, YAP has also been partnering with the City of Baltimore and communities across the nation, to use its time-tested approach to do community violence intervention (CVI) work to help curb neighborhood violence.

    GVRS, also known as focused deterrence, is a nationally recognized approach that has the strongest formal evaluation record of any violence prevention initiative designed to reduce homicides and non-fatal shootings. The strategy works by engaging directly with those most intimately involved in and affected by violence, leveraging an intentional collaboration between law enforcement, social services, and community members who collectively co-sign and deliver an anti-violence message to stop the shooting.

    When Johnson applied for the YAP GVRS job, he was working at the city’s Collegiate School for Boys, “where the kids are at the top of their game and college-bound,” he said. “But when one of the students was shot and killed, I learned that even they were at risk to falling victim to gun violence.”

    That was only part of what fueled the passion that led Johnson to YAP, which in addition to providing youth justice and child welfare services in Maryland, is one of two Baltimore GVRS non-profit service providers. The YAP GVRS team serves adults and youth identified as being at the highest risk of being engaged in violence. The team members doing the work come with shared experience, or backgrounds like those they serve, people who have been justice involved, often with felony records.

    “I have a felony on my record and understand how that can impact getting and keeping a job. I know what it’s like to be walked out of an apartment complex; I know all the setbacks,” Johnson said. “I also know the trauma associated with being responsible for taking someone’s life. In my case, it was aggravated vehicular homicide and the person who was killed was my college roommate and good friend.”

    YAP GVRS Program Director Steven Johnson (center) with team members Kia Harrell (blue shirt), Asia Whitlock and Dwade Brown

    Johnson got the job and now leads a team of 15 with a caseload of 104, “75 who are regularly engaged and 11 program participants who no longer require intensive services,” he said. The YAP team serves adults, ages 25 and older, four of whom are women, and with the recent addition of youth under age 16, their current caseload also includes four boys and three girls.

    The GVRS message is grounded in the following core parts:

    • Every person and community needs and deserves to be safe and;
    • Violence is often driven by a very small number of groups and people.
    • To increase safety, we must collectively focus on that small number of people in order to support high-risk individuals in their daily lives, communicate community norms in support of everybody’s safety and success, and where necessary create swift, certain, and legitimate sanctions for violence. 

    “Steven leads by example and is consistent in his support of his team members’ efforts to empower those they serve by helping them realize their strengths and connecting them to individualized economic, educational and emotional tools they need to turn their lives around,” Jernigan said.

    Program participants include adults and youth recently returning from incarceration, those who are gang affiliated, individuals who have recently lost a loved one to gun violence and others on the GVRS community referral group’s list of being at risk of gun violence engagement — as a perpetrator or victim.

    “GVRS has played a critically important role in driving the largest year-over-year homicide reduction in Baltimore’s history in 2023, and is showcasing that our comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence is working,” said Mayor Brandon Scott at a February news conference.

    Steven Johnson speaking with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at a February 2024 GVRS news conference

    Also at the news conference, Dr. Anthony Braga, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Crime and Justice Policy Lab. announced preliminary findings of a study of the GVRS program, saying that in the 18 months after its introduction in January 2022, the strategy was responsible for reducing homicides and shootings in the Western District by roughly a quarter, and carjackings by about a third.

    “From a policy perspective, this evaluation’s early findings do three things: (1) they underscore the potential of GVRS to reduce gun violence, while avoiding the collateral consequences of mass arrests; (2) they also demonstrate the power of targeted interventions, like GVRS, that focus on the small number of individuals and groups at the very highest risk of involvement in gun violence; and, finally, (3) they make a strong case for continued investment in bringing GVRS to scale in Baltimore City,”  Braga said.

    YAP GVRS Outreach Workers knock on doors, talk to neighbors, communicate with families – whatever it takes to safely persuade individuals on the referral list who refuse services to change their mind. The team’s Life Coaches support program participants with a range of individualized services, including providing assistance with getting housing, employment, cognitive behavioral therapy and if necessary, even emergency relocation. Johnson said the YAP team has been successful with 90 percent of individuals who accept their services.

    Being a part of the YAP GVRS team’s work — seeing first-hand the participants’ progress has empowered Johnson to move beyond trauma-related and other limitations that his own felony conviction has created. With dreams of entering politics, he is exploring having his record expunged. He is also beginning to accept that the often repeated quote by Just Mercy author Brian Stevenson — “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”  — applies to him, too.

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