Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration on Tuesday unveiled a $1 million proposal to lower gun violence by, among other initiatives, paying known gang members a weekly stipend not to break the law and work toward turning their life around.

This comes after city officials released data showing Syracuse had a per capita murder rate in 2021 three times the rest of the U.S.

The Safer Streets Program would focus on mental health, education and career placement, as well as providing a $100 per week stipend for up to 90 days, city official said. The program would be funded using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

What You Need To Know

  • The city of Syracuse unveiled a $1 million proposal to reduce gun violence with funds from the federal American Rescue Plan provided to the city.

  • The program would introduce mental health training and career coaching to assist 50 high-risk individuals in getting on the right track.

  • The Safer Streets Program has a focus on mental health, education, and career placement, and would include a proposed $100 weekly stipend.

Officials in Syracuse's Office to Reduce Gun Violence stressed that much of the gun violence in the city has to do with personal conflicts, rather than territory or drug sales. Their idea is to introduce mental health training and career coaching to assist 50 high-risk individuals in getting on the right track.

“It’s a combination of us working with the system, with community partners to figure out who needs the most service who needs the most help,” said Azariah Yemma, director of programming for the Good Life Youth Foundation, a city-based organization that aims to eliminate youth violence.

Yemma said he is in favor of the Walsh administration’s plan, which needs Common Council approval.  

“We’re doing case management, so when the youth comes through, we will do an assessment,” Yemma said. “We’ll do a needs assessment, we’ll do a goals assessment and figure out where they’re at in life and figure out why they’re having some of these issues, and maybe the barriers that are moving them towards street activity.”

The program proposes providing mentorship, mental health counseling, job training and a personalized education plan to 50 of the city’s most at-risk individuals between the ages of 18 and 24. With the primary purpose of the program being to alleviate poverty, officials argue, part of the plan would be to give out a $100 to $200 cash stipend, to individuals identified as partaking in gang-related behavior as an incentive to get on the right track, which Yemma argues is necessary.

“They may not have the transferable skills to go out and get a job, but I’m asking them to do mental health circles. I’m asking them to do mental health 101. I’m asking them to meet with us once a week. I’m asking them to do job training,” he said. “How are they going to feed themselves?”

Joseph Moran, president of the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association, said his members don’t take issue with the idea of rehabilitation. 

“We can all agree at least initially that those investments can be deemed acceptable,” Moran told Spectrum News 1.  

But Moran said the idea of the stipend has the police union concerned.

“You’re actually paying stipends to individuals who are documented gang members to maintain good behavior and obey the law,” he said. “It really was a surprise to us to see that. I know it doesn’t sit well with the membership. It really doesn’t sit well with myself.”

Lateef Johnson-Kinsey, director of the mayor's Office to Reduce Gun Violence, said like the mentorships and mental health counseling, the stipend is part of a broader process.

“We’re making an investment,” he said. “We’re not just giving gang members money. We’re making an investment into a program and young people who have been marginalized and have been skipped over for the last decade, so we’re doing something different so as a community, we want to invest $100 a week. That will not go on forever, 90 days.” 

Yemma said the hope is that at the end of the three months, the people in the program will be on the right path.  

“They may want to be an electrician, so define their goals and build their goals,” he said. “Make a sustainable life plan for them so that way they’re not dependent on a system where they’re in the criminal justice system, they’re doing something they want to do and they’re being productive to society.”

City leaders said the stipend is conditional and dependent on those individuals abstaining from committing violent crime.  

Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens added the city looked at other municipalities where similar programs have been successful.