Aiken kicks off new initiative to reduce violent crime

Aiken call-in
After a year-and-a-half marked by violence, the City of Aiken is trying something new and very different. It's a program that holds violent offenders accountable, and it started Thursday night. (WRDW-TV)
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News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, Jan. 31, 2012

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- There were 11 in all. They sat quietly in two rooms of chairs inside Aiken's City Council chambers, but they were focused. They're actually a few of Aiken's worst violent offenders.

"And they're good people. They are good people. It's just they've made some bad mistakes, and they don't know how to get away from it," said Shelby Saunders, the spokesman for the new program called Aiken Safe Communities.

It's a crime prevention initiative born in High Point, N.C. Originally, it was thought up by a Harvard professor. It reduced violent crime by 57 percent in High Point. Now, it's here in Aiken. High Point police officers visited Aiken in mid-2012.

In December of 2012, law enforcement and community officials from Aiken visited High Point to see how the program works firsthand. Saunders was there.

"No matter where you're at in Aiken, if you re-offend, you will be fast-tracked to the top of the list [to be prosecuted]," he said.

To hammer that home, just like they do in High Point, these offenders in Aiken heard from local police chiefs, Solicitor Strom Thurmond, even agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The task force also included the Aiken County Sheriff's Office; the Jackson Police Department; the North Augusta Department of Public Safety; the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services; the New Ellenton Police Department; the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division; the South Carolina Department of Corrections; and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"They're not ready for that. From a mindset, from a life perspective, these gentlemen in this community, who are not very worldly, they're not ready to deal with that type of time," said Christopher Garris, who watched among the audience of city workers and community members.

Garris is a bail bondsman in Aiken, who understands what's at work here. He's a former New York gang member. He knows what the addiction to crime feels like.

"They're giving these young gentlemen alternatives to better themselves," he said of the Safe Communities initiative.

Here's how it works. If the men with a history of violence called in to this meeting cooperate, the community works with them to help them. If they ignore the message and re-offend, officers and prosecutors work together to expedite their case and send them quickly to prison on large sentences.

It's a choice the 11 men will face after Thursday's call-in.

"They're not going to be able to find everyone a job or provide all for them, but they can give them some assistance and putting them in the right direction and helping them get a driver's license, Social Security card," said Chief Charles Barranco of the Aiken Department of Public Safety of the help the community can offer.

Barranco knows just how successful this program is in High Point, N.C. Now, it's Aiken's turn.

"We go on," he said. "And we want to make a difference here in Aiken."

Saunders told News 12 the program is already working in Aiken. After the meeting, he spoke with one of the offenders. Saunders says one offender asked him when was the earliest that he could call for help on Friday.

Click here (PDF) to learn more about this initiative, including how you can get involved.

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