Three people were shot during school hours in the parking lot of Hinkley High School, Nov. 19, 2021, just days after an earlier shooting near Aurora Central High School in an adjacent park. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | A new Aurora program seeks to redirect young violent offenders by connecting them with social services and warning them about the certainty of criminal penalties.

“We take our most violent, prolific offenders, bring them in as a community and let them know that we’re done with the violence, we’re done with the path that they’re on, and we want to offer them an off-ramp,” said Joseph DeHerrera, manager of the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Program.

DeHerrera and Aurora Police Department officials described the joint program for youths between ages 15 and 25 to City Council members on March 6, presenting it as a tested way of curbing violence in the city.

“We want to, obviously, reduce homicides, non-fatal shootings, group violence and recidivism, and build community trust through our transparency and partnership with, not only law enforcement but all of our partner agencies within the community as well,” DeHerrera said.

The Standing Against Violence Everyday program, SAVE, will single out between 20 and 25 teenagers and young adults with prior criminal convictions who police suspect of continued involvement in violent crime.

“What we’re hoping to do, when they don’t have that extensive of a criminal history, is get them on the right track,” interim Police Chief Art Acevedo told the council on March 6. “Those kinds of strategies work a lot better on the younger people, so they don’t graduate into a life of crime.”

City spokesman Ryan Luby said the listed individuals would be selected based on “lengthy, violent criminal histories and high rates of recidivism,” and that some may be on probation or parole.

Mark Hildebrand, chief of APD’s Investigations Divisions, told the city council that police wouldn’t choose an individual for the program if they had probable cause to arrest that person for a violent crime.

He said that, by targeting people who are either involved in crime indirectly or who are involved in ways that police can’t prove, police hope to discourage groups from committing crime.

“It’s not giving people who are committing violent crimes an out,” he said. “They’re still going to be prosecuted. But there are several individuals who we believe may be involved in robberies, but we can’t prove it, and we’re not going to be able to prosecute them in court, so this is an alternative, potentially, to that.”

After being informed of their selection in a meeting that could involve family members, community leaders, police and others, offenders will have the option of accepting services or turning down the offers. The overture comes with the understanding that case filing will be expedited in future cases and prosecutors won’t be encouraged to downgrade charges or request less severe sentences.

Aurora police said during a policy committee meeting in January that similar programs in other cities have offered chosen individuals employment help, substance abuse and mental health treatment, anger management classes, life coaching and other services. Specifics of the Aurora program have yet to be determined.

The strategy of fighting crime by singling out offenders, promising “certain, swift and severe” punishment for future crimes and simultaneously offering social services is known as “focused deterrence,” according to city documents explaining the program.

Other cities such as Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas and Oakland have all implemented focused deterrence programs and have reported some successes in reducing violent crime.

Criticism of the focused deterrence model often focuses on a lack of transparency with regard to how lists are compiled, the phenomenon of innocent people getting caught in the criminal justice dragnet and difficulties faced by program participants who are no longer involved in crime and want their names taken off the list.

Joe Moylan, a spokesman for the Aurora Police Department, said that only people with past criminal convictions suspected of being the city’s “most prolific and violent offenders” will be targeted by the program. He said police have not decided yet whether the list will be published.

While police say the program will involve mapping out the social networks of people involved in the program, Moylan said police will not monitor individuals just because they know a listed person. When asked how police will map the social networks of listed people, he said that was a “crime analyst specialization” and that one or more employees were being hired for that task.

He said unique exit criteria would be established for each listed person and wrote in an email that “(s)uccess will be defined on a case-by-case basis.”

Taylor Pendergrass, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, mentioned how Aurora police are currently being monitored under a consent decree and how past attempts to monitor suspected gang members in Denver and Aurora led to “people being tracked in a way that presumes they’re guilty before they’re innocent.”

He said existing research does not support the suggestion that people change their behavior when threatened with tougher prosecution and prison sentences if they continue to be involved in crime.

“Most of the research also shows it’s not the size of the consequence that matters,” Pendergrass said. “I think ultimately, that can be counterproductive to the goal of the program, which is reducing violence.”

Local anti-gang activist Jason McBride said he supported the program and had agreed to be involved, but said he wanted to see Aurora offer more employment opportunities for youths involved in violence as well as support for their families.

“I’m encouraged,” he said. “Aurora has been so disappointing the last couple of years. But maybe with this program, we can start to build relationships out there and lower some of the things that are going on out there.”

DeHerrera told the council that the program will not be run solely by law enforcement, with elected officials and others invited to participate on the program’s governing board and work groups. He said those entities would be created in the coming weeks.

Council members were generally supportive of the program. Councilmember Crystal Murillo said she was interested to see what impact it would have, even though she said she wasn’t aware of long-term data supporting the focused deterrence model.

“It’s not yet at the point yet where there’s so much data out there that we can say that this is, in fact, an evidence-based practice,” she said. “I’m open to exploring and seeing how this might possibly impact Aurora.”

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  1. First “youths between ages 15 and 25”? A 20-25 year old isn’t a youth.
    Next, “research does not support the suggestion that people change their behavior when threatened with tougher prosecution and prison sentences’. I believe this. People don’t think about the consequences of there action!
    In this day after all these years? We still don’t know what influences these people to commit crimes? We should address the influencersaybe?

    1. Evidence suggests the biggest deterrent to criminal behavior is the likelihood of getting caught. As for impulsive violent criminal behavior, consequences are not primary in the calculus, so either change culture and change behavior early or lock them up for good.

  2. This is fine, but when will we start turning the screws on the gangbangers that are recruiting children to do their dirty work? Cut off the head of the snake.

  3. They are described as “the most prolific and violent offenders.” They already have had lots of chances. The parents, teachers, counselors, and detention centers were not able to curb the criminal behavior of these young people, so it is very doubtful that this program will be able to do so. Forget this grossly complicated, expensive, new program that gives preferential treatment to a handful of thugs. And why be soft on violent adults aged 18-25? Can we not just lock these dangerous criminals up for decades?!?

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