YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The question posed by Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin on Thursday seemed like a no-brainer.
“How many of you want to live?” she asked the nine young men in front of her for the call-in for the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.
Every hand shot up. The answer is an easy one, but given the history of crime and violence in Youngstown for the last 30 years, for those caught up in it, achieving that goal for some is not easy at all.
The call-in, as it’s called, is held regularly in the municipal court in Baldwin’s courtroom, which had its grandeur as the former U.S. district court in the city restored when the city renovated the former City Hall Annex to house the court and other offices.
CIRV, which is run by the omnipresent Guy Burney, is an intervention program run by the city to help stop violence before it starts.
Those who take part are young men who are selected because they have either taken part in violence or are at risk of being a victim.
They are offered social services, such as help finding a job, getting a driver’s license, education, food or counseling, to help keep them away from a life of crime.
They call the call-ins “an opportunity,” because those that show up are given access to that help right away.
However, if they choose to reject that path, they are warned of the pitfalls of street and gang life — jail, prison, courts and death.
Of the nine young men present, all are black; six of the nine had felony gun offenses when they were juveniles.
Of the three call-ins I have been to, this was the most talkative group. Several times they interrupted to ask questions.
One of them interrupted Assistant U.S. Attorney Yasmine Makridis when she was telling them of the severity of sentences in the federal prison and telling them of city residents who are serving lengthy sentences.
He said he meant “no disrespect,” but he already knew those things and said, “I don’t want to talk about this s—.”
Makridis did not miss a beat. Like a lawyer in a courtroom thrown a curveball, she said she wanted to make sure the men knew a federal prison sentence meant years in a federal correctional institution, hundreds or even thousands of miles from Youngstown, which would cut them off from friends and family.
After she asked her question, Judge Baldwin said she knows it is not easy for some of the men because it comes down to changing a way of life, maybe the only life they’ve ever known.
“The decisions you are going to be asked to make are not easy,” she said. “They are lifestyle changes.”
When she asked if they were “involved in something that can get you snuffed out like that?” one of the young men replied: “Everybody is.”
Judge Baldwin said she does not consider herself better than anyone who comes before her, but she did add that she had made better decisions than some of those people.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he could relate with the young men in front of him. He grew up in a single-parent home with his father in and out of prison. Several friends and even some family members have been shot dead on the streets of Youngstown.
He said he dreads the phone call in the middle of the night; it used to mean someone he knew closely had been murdered. Now, it is police Chief Carl Davis or one of his staff telling him that someone in the city had been murdered.
Brown didn’t say if he got a call yesterday, when a man was found shot to death about 7:20 p.m. in a car at West Boston and Idlewood avenues on the south side.
It is the 16th homicide of the year, one behind last year’s pace at this time when 28 people were killed.
In 2021, 68 people have been shot in Youngstown, up from 46 at this time last year.
A total of 98 people were shot last year, so chances are Brown has been woken up several times the last two years in the dead of the night.
“There’s some decisions you have to make to not be part of that call,” Brown told the young men.
Police Chief Carl Davis told the young men of the decision he made as a teen; one night while riding around with others on Hillman Street, they picked up a friend who produced a gun and the group decided to pull a robbery on the east side.
Did Davis want to go? He did not, he told the group. They let him out of the car and he walked to the nearby home of his “auntie.”
They ultimately did not pull off the robbery, but one of those men is in prison now and two more were murdered.
Davis celebrated his 61st birthday Thursday.
“I thank God I did not make the choice to stay in the car with those guys,” Davis said.
Makridis told the young men of the absolute strictness of the federal justice system, where a lot of repeat gun offenders or people heavily involved in the drug trade wind up.
Under federal law, if you are barred from having a gun, you not only can’t have it on you; it can’t be around you, within reach.
It doesn’t even matter if you didn’t know it was there, she said.
There are people who have gone to federal prison for five years because they got caught with a single bullet, she said, which prompted a laugh from someone.
“I know you’re laughing but I promise you it’s not worth five years in prison for a bullet,” she said
The federal system is the creme de la creme of the legal system, she said. Federal prosecutors are virtually undefeated.
“We will win when we take your cases to trial,” Makridis said.
The program ended as it always does with Amanda Lencyk of St. Elizabeth Health Center telling the young men what they and their families can expect if they are taken to the emergency room for a gunshot wound.
Lencyk took them on a tour of the emergency room, showing them pictures where their families will wait while they are being worked on.
The waiting room is devoid of color or decoration because in the past, too many grieving families have destroyed any decorations, she said.
Gore, she said, she can take, but not mourning family members.
“It’s the screaming of the moms and the family members that sticks with me,” Lencyk said.
They were shown pictures of gunshot wounds and what they look like on the human body.
Her next to last image was of an empty, bloody operating room, with a gurney covered in blood and blood-stained floors.
Not only is the room cleaned, but it’s also done right away because the room is used frequently, sometimes on the same night.
Of the 68 shootings in the city this year, nine of them have seen two or more people shot. For all of last year, there were eight of those shootings.
“As fast as this room gets messed up, we have to turn it around real quick because it’s not stopping,” she said.
The final image was a corpse with a toe tag dangling from a foot.
Family members, when they are told someone dies, want to rush in and hug and touch the dead person, but they can’t, Lencyk said.
“They’re a coroner’s case now,” she said.