After 13 years in prison, Sylvester was determined to forge a constructive path when he was discharged in 2020.
He bumped into a friend he knew from the street who had become an outreach worker at READI Chicago, an innovative program created in part by University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and the Inclusive Economy Lab. Launched in 2017, READI Chicago is an intensive violence reduction initiative that provides two years of programming, including 18 months of paid employment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and comprehensive support, with an additional six months of job coaching after the work component ends.
At his friend’s urging, Sylvester enrolled.
“That’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, because it changed my life,” Sylvester, 36, recalled. “It changed my thought pattern. It helped put me in a mindset where everything doesn’t have to resort to violence.”
More than 1,000 men in Chicago who are likely to be perpetrators or victims of violence have been offered participation in READI (Rapid Employment and Development Initiative) Chicago, a Heartland Alliance program. Early evaluations show powerful impact: Participants—men who attended at least one READI orientation—are 79% less likely to be arrested for a shooting or homicide, according to preliminary results of the program released in July.
Almost as important are READI’s applicability to other cities looking to reduce gun violence and the foundational research legacy it is creating.
“To me, the collaborative process of how READI Chicago came to be is one of the best untold stories coming out of Chicago,” said Monica P. Bhatt, senior research director of UChicago’s Crime Lab and Education Lab.
READI Chicago is showing encouraging results at the same time the city is experiencing a spike in violence. Through Aug. 17, shootings have jumped to nearly 2,200—12% higher than the same time frame last year. Reports of homicides, while still tragically high, have risen at a lower rate: Chicago police have recorded 499 through Aug. 17, compared to 488 for the same span in 2020.
‘Responsive, nimble and solutions-focused’
READI started as a response to a more drastic, longer rise in violence in 2016. Chicago endured a 58% increase in homicides and 43% increase in non-fatal shootings that year, prompting leaders in the city to create the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities (PSPC). PSPC was a funding collective to invest in evidence-based strategies to bring down gun violence. Representatives of Chicago’s professional sports teams, including the White Sox, Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls, established the Chicago Sports Alliance to use their public platforms and financial resources to support the initiative. JPMorgan Chase joined the effort as well.
Importantly, input from staff in community-based organizations such as the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, North Lawndale Employment Network, UCAN, Centers for New Horizons, and Heartland Human Care Services, as well as men from the community helped inform how READI would be marketed to future participants. Those organizations also deliver READI Chicago under Heartland Alliance’s coordination.