Thirty-eight years old and locked up in state prison for the sixth time, Reginald Frazier said choices he made as a teenager - doing drugs and joining a street gang - wrecked his life.
"I ain't gained nothing," he said, "but beat up, then lived in a prison for a few times, been on probation since I was about 11 years old."
His mother died when he was a baby, and Mr. Frazier said he joined the Black Gangster Disciples at age 15 while living with an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, N.Y. He moved back to Augusta, hooked up with other members of the gang and became an "enforcer," dealing drugs, robbing and shoplifting to support his own drug habit.
"I've been worried about the wrong things all my life, it seems like," Mr. Frazier said during an interview last month at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville, Ga., where he served his most recent prison stint for theft by shoplifting. He has since been released.
"It's just time now to really grow up," he said.
At the start of the decade, organizations in Augusta dedicated to steering children and teens away from Mr. Frazier's fate were few, but that's hardly the case now.
A year after Sheriff Ronnie Strength sounded the alarm about the festering gang problem at an Augusta Commission work session, grass-roots efforts are under way to give alternatives to teens at risk of joining gangs, which is what experts say a community must do to curb youth violence.
Through a nonprofit called Taking Back the Streets, Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Richard Roundtree, KISS-FM (96.3) radio personality Tim "Minnesota Fattz" Snell and the Rev. Larry Fryer want to create an umbrella organization for the civic groups in the area trying to get troubled teens into sports, after-school tutoring and mentoring programs.
Nineteen groups have come on board, ranging from the obscure to the well-established, said Sgt. Roundtree, the executive director. They include Boys & Girls Clubs of Augusta, Ounce of Prevention Services, Precious Jewels Youth Organizations, Fathers With a Purpose, Positive Women Taking Action, Positive Choice Enrichment and Mocha Sisters Organization of Augusta, among others.
About 300 people, including children, teens and parents, turned out at a Taking Back the Streets rally Saturday evening at May Park, across from the Richmond County Law Enforcement Center. Volunteers set up tables to pass out fliers and sign up program participants, while hip hop and R&B artists TK, Tiffany Evans, Montana and headliner Trey Songz performed.
Willie Battle, the president of Men Making a Difference, said that after an hour and a half he had found two prospects. His group, mostly Fort Gordon soldiers and retirees, mentors boys charged with crimes or on their way to committing crimes.
"It would be worth it even if we'd found just one," Mr. Battle said.
SGT. ROUNDTREE said he hopes Taking Back the Streets can not only organize large-scale events to give the groups exposure but also earn federal grants that can be dispersed to them.
"Every day I come to work, I could lock somebody up," said Sgt. Roundtree, a violent crimes investigator. "But that is not solving the problem, and we realize that.
"You have to give them alternatives. If you take something away from a child, you have to replace it with something."
This line of thinking follows the new wisdom of dealing with gangs. A study released in July by the Justice Policy Institute - a Washington, D.C. think tank dedicated to finding alternatives to incarceration - contends that billions of dollars spent on heavy-handed, gang-fighting law enforcement programs has been a waste, not only failing to solve the problem, but likely making it worse.
The Augusta area has an FBI-led CSRA Safe Streets Task Force, whose goal is to charge gang members with federal crimes so they do longer prison terms. The FBI raised its Augusta office's budget by $150,000 to $200,000 this year to fund the task force.
But cracking down on gangs through sweeps and tougher sentencing only increases their cohesion, argues the institute's report, Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies.
"The gang survey literature makes it clear that these kids are not worried about risks," report co-author Kevin Pranis said. "They're not scared out of a gang by the prospect of another gang member shooting them. They're not going to be scared out by the prospect of being arrested."
Communities would do better to focus on the underlying social problems, Mr. Pranis said. They could stage interventions for youths getting involved in crime; use therapeutic approaches, involving parents when possible; expand after-school programs; and work to create more jobs in the community to alleviate poverty, he said.
"The truth is, it's just a bunch of stupid kids, though they may be involved in violence that you need to deal with," Mr. Pranis said. "You do good police work, but you also make an effort on the social services side."
Mr. Frazier said a lot of people might have good intentions in trying to keep children away from gangs - or talking them into leaving gangs - but it can be like a person who's never drunk alcohol or used drugs leading a rehabilitation group.
Teens at risk would do better to talk someone like themselves, Mr. Frazier said.
"Somebody who done been there, done that," he said. "Somebody who know how to talk to them, in the language that they know how to talk, and know what signs to look for, you know, in these kids when they're going in the wrong direction."
Parents, especially single parents, need to pay attention to what their sons and daughters are doing, he said.
"Because a lot of parents is too busy caught up in work," Mr. Frazier said. "You know, they got to work to be able to provide and stuff like that. And they really not paying attention.
"They think they be seeing, but they not seeing what they really need to see. They seeing what they want to see."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TEENS AND VIOLENCE
Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Richard Roundtree said part of what led him to get involved with Taking Back the Streets was an inordinate number of homicides involving youth. In 2007, about half of the suspects in Augusta's homicides have been 18 or younger, he said. Among the violent incidents involving youth this year:
- On July 1, 24-year-old Nicholas Carpenter was shot to death at Club Platinum on North Leg Road. Denzel Ward, 17, has been charged with murder.
- On July 9, Stedmund Fryer, 18, was shot to death on the dance floor of Super C's nightclub on Tobacco Road, which was forced to close. Eighteen-year-old Darion A. McNair has been charged with murder in that case.
- In Aiken County, Morris Dorch, 19, is accused of killing Prince Shand Jr., 20, with an assault rifle early Wednesday. Arrest warrants have been issued for Mr. Dorch.
EFFORTS TO STOP THE VIOLENCE
Taking Back the Streets isn't the only group in the area working to keep youth safe.
Augusta State University Athletics Director Clint Bryant is forming a group aimed at stopping youth violence, Changing Attitudes Refocusing Efforts Commission. In April, he told The Augusta Chronicle the group will serve as a watchdog on the city's response to gang violence, pushing such measures as surveillance cameras in gang-infested neighborhoods and a hot line for parents. The Chronicle attempted to sit in on the group's meeting Wednesday at ASU's J. Fleming Norvell Golf House, but Mr. Bryant wouldn't allow it.
Another group, Full Circle Refuge, has held gang-awareness seminars at schools and churches since 2006. The ministry for juvenile delinquents, headed by Devon Harris, helps parents, teachers and youth workers understand gang culture and recognize warning signs.
You can call Sgt. Richard Roundtree at (706) 821-1014.
SEE THE PHOTOS
Check out more than 80 photos from the Taking Back The Streets rally at May Park on Saturday at spotted.augusta.com.