Over the past six decades, the Metro East has gained a nasty reputation for dangerous crime. The news headlines reflect a cycle of poverty and crime made worse by a lack of local resources for adequate governance.
Three government officials charged with tackling these problems joined us to discuss their vision for creating a more positive future for the Metro East: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen Wigginton; State's Attorney for St. Clair County, Brendan Kelly; and the mayor of Washington Park, Ann Rodgers.
What bothers her most about the bad reputation of the Metro East, said Mayor Ann Rodgers, is that the majority of the people who live there don't deserve it.
"We have residents, working residents, who [are] striving to do their best within the community," said Rodgers.
The problems of the Metro East have been building for many years, and there are no easy solutions, said State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. The difficulty in coming up with solutions is made even more difficult, he added, because of the many government entities involved and because some feel action is futile.
"I think there is a sense that it's been this way for so long. So, for them, they've almost accepted it in some ways. That it will never be fixed. And I think that's the biggest challenge. I think that's the biggest challenge for leaders like Ann and myself and Mr. Wigginton. Is to say, look, it doesn't have to be this way," said Kelly.
Kelly and U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton work in partnership to combat crime in the region. In addition to forming joint task forces, the two share a belief that the best approach to reducing crime is to stop the issues that feed it.
"We know that just prosecuting people and putting them in prison is not the answer. We need to start as early as possible. We need to get in the schools," said Wigginton. "We have a targeted approach on our investigations, like we did this summer. We have to be smart on crime...we have to target those people who are the worst offenders, and that's what we do."
Kelly and Wigginton also focus their attention on youth prevention through juvenile justice programs and talking with students in schools. St. Clair County has a teen court where offenders will be judged in part by their peers and has a program called Redeploy that gives juvenile offenders an opportunity to avoid detention through restitution.
"We unfortunately, in St. Clair County, and in communities across the country, have young kids born in difficult circumstances so that it's almost as if they are predestined to be standing in front of a judge and be sentenced to prison for the rest of their life because they've killed someone," said Kelly. "Well, they don't start out that way. They aren't born into this world with a gun in their hand or doing drugs. Things happen along the way. So that's why we're trying to put more of our efforts on juvenile justice."
"The statistics aren't good," added Kelly. "When I go to talk to young men in schools...one of the things I tell them is, it's as if they have a slow motion bullet coming right for them. But they have an opportunity, with the right choices, to step out of the way of that bullet."