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In Camden, young ex-offenders spread antiviolence message

Dec 31, 2013

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Wilson Rodriguez thought he had something worthwhile to say, but he wondered why a young audience would listen to a 21-year-old parolee convicted as a teenager in the bludgeoning death of a sleeping homeless man.

He told more than a dozen youngsters in an event hosted by the Camden Board of Education he and his friends "did something horrible and someone ended up dying."

"The lesson was: Don't follow nobody. That was my lesson," Rodriguez said, reflecting on his first appearance in July as a member of Cease Murder Diplomats, a Camden nonprofit that seeks to reduce the homicide rate by mentoring young adults and the formerly incarcerated.

When Rodriguez came home to East Camden in January after serving more than five years in a juvenile detention center and halfway house, he found his city as violent as when he left in 2008, when 54 people were killed.

As of last week, overall crime had dropped from 6,001 to 5,178 victims, but violent crime dipped only slightly. The city has recorded 55 homicides in 2013, compared with the record 67 in 2012.

...The city, supplied with $1.4 million from the federal government, is considering a national antiviolence prevention program, Cure Violence, to reduce youth and gang violence. The approach entails treating violence like a disease and hiring ex-offenders like Rodriguez to act as "interrupters" to mediate gang disputes before they escalate.

It's the sort of work the Cease Murder Diplomats have been doing for more than a year.

The nonprofit has helped reenroll more than 55 high school dropouts, placed residents released from prison into jobs, and intervened in gang disputes, said Micah Khan, a managing member.

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