Violent crime has been rising nationally since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many elected officials, policymakers, and media outlets have mistakenly placed the blame on young people. For far too long, youth have been an easy scapegoat for the rising violence in America. Although the real drivers of this devastating trend are complex and far-reaching, the political motivation to point to a single reason for violent crime has spawned public discourse and policy developments that have harmed generations of youth, and particularly youth of color, for a problem they did not cause.
According to a recent Sentencing Project analysis, only 7 percent of the people arrested in the United States in 2019 were younger than 18, a much smaller share than in years past. This trend continued across offense categories in 2020, with the share of crime committed by youth continuing to decline. In fact, from 2017 to 2020, the total number of youth arrested fell by 50 percent, the number of youth arrested for serious crimes fell by 38 percent, and the number of youth arrested for homicides fell by 8 percent. The overall number of homicides committed by youth did rise slightly from 2019 to 2020 along with the national trend, but the share of youth arrested for homicide was only 7.5 percent in 2020 and remains lower than in the preceding years.
Although the trends in youth arrests are going in the right direction, the data on youth victims of gun violence tell a different story. Gun violence was the leading cause of death among children and teenagers in 2020. Black youth are 14 times more likely and Hispanic youth are three times more likely than white youth to die as a result of gun violence. Violent crime is the consequence of historic underinvestment in communities of color. A comprehensive approach to address crime and violence should direct resources back into communities of color that have been disproportionately affected and where historic divestment has resulted in a lack of proven public health and community safety infrastructure.
This issue brief highlights the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to gun violence to meet the needs of young people. It discusses how community violence intervention (CVI) programs are an important part of that approach to stop the current cycle of violence and spotlights two programs that are working to meet youth where they are.
A comprehensive approach to gun violence would save young lives
The impact of increased gun violence, particularly on young people of color, must not be overlooked.10 Efforts to reduce gun violence need to address the underlying societal conditions that are causing violence—such as concentrated poverty,11 gaps in available public health resources, and community trauma—many of which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reducing the number of youth who are likely to engage in or become victims of gun violence requires an interdisciplinary approach. As part of a comprehensive approach to prevent youth violence and associated risk behaviors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the need to focus on evidence-based strategies that both prevent violence before it happens and intervene to address immediate and future harms. Prevention strategies that promote healthy families, improve early education, provide skills-building opportunities, connect youth to supportive adults, and improve community environments have long been recognized as key to combating youth violence in the long term. However, a comprehensive approach also requires programs to intervene in breaking the cycle of violence by meeting the needs of at-risk youth and helping them change their lives.
These more immediate interventions, known as community violence interventions, have shown success at engaging individuals most likely to participate in gun violence and addressing its root causes. However, local, state, and federal government as well as private philanthropy must provide greater resources to support CVI models specifically dedicated to serving young people.
CVI programs meet community members, particularly youth, where they are
CVI refers to a range of program models that all work to reduce homicides and shootings through established partnerships between government stakeholders, community leaders, trusted service providers, and people most likely to be affected by gun violence. CVI programs are staffed by people rooted in the communities they serve, with the local knowledge necessary to mediate conflicts and identify supportive services for participants. CVIs also help individuals cope with the trauma associated with living in neighborhoods beset by routine gun violence: Such programs have been shown to curb violence by up to 60 percent in areas where they are implemented.
Various evidence-based CVI programs have been or are being implemented in communities nationwide:
Hospital-based violence intervention programs work with people who have been admitted to the hospital for intentional injuries, as well as their families, in an effort to prevent retaliation and connect patients and families to community-based care.
Community-driven crime prevention by environmental design programs focus on neighborhoods’ physical environment, addressing issues such as blight and vacant lots to create safe public spaces and reduce the number of areas where activity that leads to gun violence can occur.
Violence interruption programs, also known as street outreach programs, employ staff who are closely related to the dynamics of neighborhood gun violence and can thus build close relationships with participants. Such relationships mean that participants trust staff to de-escalate or resolve conflicts, provide resources to prevent and disrupt cycles of violence, and halt retaliation.
In group violence intervention programs, community leaders and law enforcement programs work together to engage with individuals most connected to group violence. To deter violence, these programs rely on both enforcement measures and supportive services delivered by messengers with credibility in the community.
Youth CVI initiatives built on these evidence-based models are most effective when they take a public health approach to gun violence that looks at population-level factors that influence access to firearms and the root causes of gun violence. The decades of lessons learned from existing evidence-based prevention strategies can also inform the delivery of supportive services to produce results and save young lives.
Components of youth-focused CVI programs
Youth-focused CVI programs take a combination of the following approaches:
Engage and offer support directly to those young people most likely to engage in or be victims of gun violence.
Employ trusted and respected members of the community to work directly with youth who may be skeptical of government or law enforcement.
Provide school-based services to ensure participants attain their educational goals.
Prioritize community needs by engaging participants, program staff, and residents in efforts to improve their neighborhoods through blight remediation, addressing abandoned property, beautification efforts, and more.
Provide workforce development, job training, and employment opportunities for youth.
Increase access to recreation and community centers, parks, and other prosocial development opportunities.
Improve relationships between participants and their families, friends, and larger communities.
Include youth directly affected by community violence in program design and implementation.
Ensure that implementation is outcomes-driven and that a performance management and evaluation plan has been established that assesses violence reduction and neighborhood improvement metrics.
As communities work to stem gun violence and the devastating impact that it has on young people across the country, community violence intervention programs, coupled with more comprehensive public health and prevention efforts, have demonstrated success. While data show that youth are not to blame for the recent surge in gun violence nationwide, a comprehensive approach to prevention and intervention is critical to address its root causes. At a critical moment in young people’s lives, CVI programs can meet people where they are and make a significant difference in the lives of both individual participants and entire communities.

Terrell Thomas is an Associate Director @ CAP Rachael Eisenberg IS Senior Director.