Mo. gang court is new approach to old problem

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Drug courts have proven successful across the country as an alternative way to turn around the lives of drug offenders. In St. Louis, a similar approach is being tried with gang members.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that a new federal court program being tried out in St. Louis is designed to keep felons from returning to gangs after their release from prison.

The program is called Project GRIP, the Gang Re-Entry Initiative Program. It involves court staffers, public defenders, prosecutors, probation workers, police and others.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey, who is in charge of the program, says the goal is to help participants shed the gang lifestyle.

Christopher L. Harper of St. Louis is the first graduate of the Gang Court. Eight years ago, he was a gang member with a history of violence and arrests. He was a convicted felon when he was caught in 2003 with a shotgun in a stolen pickup shortly after a shooting.

Harper, now 39, was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. He told the newspaper that the long federal sentence - and time away from his family - was 1 of the chief reasons he entered the program. The other was "to just build - to start accomplishing things."

Now, Harper is released to a halfway house. His graduation means he gets off of supervised release a year early. He has a full-time job with an auto service company and a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. And he is working toward buying his first home.

Harper is "the exemplification of what this program is all about," Autrey told the audience at Harper's graduation.

The Gang Court program has no additional costs - staff members perform their duties in addition to their full-time jobs.

The program began a year ago, said probation officer Jennifer Siwiecki, who supervised and mentored Harper. Six men were part of the first class. One has disappeared. One has "criminal issues," and three others are still in the program. Siwiecki and her colleagues are recruiting others.

Harper hasn't had any problems with his former gang, even though members expected him to return after he was released from prison.

In fact, once he got a job, his former gang mates asked him to get them jobs, too.

"When I started doing positive things,' he said, "now they want to do positive things."

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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