The Real Fixers

Article excerpt

They're your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues. From keeping kids in school to rebuilding devastated cities, they're rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.

The Urban Renewer: John Fetterman

When Braddock, Pa.'s eccentric mayor, John Fetterman, started tattooing the dates of local killings on his forearm in 2006, townspeople told him, "You're gonna run out of arm." That hasn't happened: the town of 2,500 hasn't had a murder in 40 months. And when a community has been dying as long as Braddock, a dramatic decline in crime is a welcome sign of life.

The question, of course, is why? Since his election in 2005, Fetterman's hulking physique, his Harvard education, and the family money he poured into this Pittsburgh suburb made him a star. Braddock, like so many towns, had collapsed with the steel industry; its population down 90 percent since the 1960s. But stories about the mayor's hip plans drew in homesteaders, who conjured an artist colony among the abandoned houses. Fetterman also managed to attract corporate sponsors: Levi's created an ad campaign around the town and made a seven-figure donation.

But Fetterman's feel-good campaign--playgrounds, gardens, and the like--alone didn't slow violent crime. He is quick to credit Chief Frank DeBartolo, whose team of 14 part-timers man the thin blue line for $9 an hour. In 2007 and 2008, the officers, along with county, state, and federal agencies, carried out what he called "a major roundup" focusing on "cocaine, heroin, crack, and firearms."

Fetterman's efforts have helped restore a sense of community pride, which, as it happens, is a core principle in modern policing. "Broken windows," literally and figuratively, lead to broken societies; fix a place up, and people will work to keep it that way. Fetterman's message: "No community is beyond hope."

--Christopher Dickey

The Crimefighter: Lauren Abramson

Few would consider America's criminal-justice system a model for the rest of the world; 52 percent of offenders are reincarcerated within three years of their release, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.

"We have a culture very focused on punishment rather than accountability," says Lauren Abramson, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins who's developed an alternative technique for dealing with young offenders. It was during a chance encounter at an international conference in 1994 that Abramson learned how the Maori people of New Zealand resolve conflict. Forgoing the courts, the Maori gather everyone involved in an incident to collectively mete out justice. To Abramson, these "community conferencing" sessions seemed a perfect venue for handling lesser crimes in the U.S. After several years of talking--with teachers, police officials, and leaders in some of Baltimore's more distressed neighborhoods--she established the Community Conferencing Center in 1998. The organization takes referrals from schools, police, and prosecutors looking for a cheaper, more effective way to deal with kids who've been caught, say, tagging a house with graffiti or stealing a car for a joyride.

A "community circle" session opens with the perpetrator talking about what happened, and then all the participants--victims, parents, bystanders--are invited to discuss how the crime affected them. It's a little like a drug intervention, except that it ends with everyone coming to a written agreement, which invariably includes an apology and some form of restitution (for example, the perpetrator performs community service or takes an after-school job to pay for a stolen bike).

"In the process, people really start to connect as human beings and not look at someone as 'that punk-ass kid who stole my car,' " says Abramson, who last year won a fellowship from PopTech, a networking group for innovators. Of 1,000 circles held since the group's inception, 98 percent have resulted in consensus for a resolution, and fewer than one in 10 kids who go through a circle end up back in the criminal-justice system, says Abramson, who's helped set up similar programs in New Orleans and Brooklyn. …