When Chelsea McNeill walks into her office, she’s almost at a loss for words.
The 8th Circuit public defender says cases that come across her desk include children shooting children, a 14-year-old charged with attempted murder and gang violence turning deadly. Her office stays busy, she said, and the violence seems to have worsened in recent years.
“Business is too good and that’s sad,” she said.
To say the violence is alarming would be an understatement, but McNeill wants to change that and is pleading for change.
“I feel like as a community, we need to address this issue head-on. We’re talking about it, but nobody is taking action. You need to take action in order to be effective,” she said.
Most of these violent crimes are being committed by young people and McNeill, investigator Jimmy Powers and Litigation Support Specialist Walter Bentley said the solution to getting youth on the right path starts in the home.
“Parents need to step up and take more responsibility and we need a way for the community to communicate better with the police department and develop more trust with them. Parents don’t have trust for the police,” Powers said.
Beyond the home, a step in the right direction could mean more community events, better services geared toward mental health, programs for at-risk youth or regularly going into schools and educating youth, Bentley said. He said any school that wants to have him or McNeill speak to their students may call him at 864-229-9505.
McNeill said there are no programs in the circuit for at-risk youth. There are no Scared Straight programs in place and other organizations that deal with issues such as mental health are underfunded or undersupported. She has proposed allowing those who are on probation to do community service with her personally and see first-hand the hard, emotional pleas from inside the courtroom.
Some might also propose implementing stiffer gun penalties as a possible solution, but McNeill said that’s not where the answer lies.
“We’ve gotten away from having a prison system used as a corrective measure. ... It’s not working. The majority of those people will be released one day. Don’t you hope they’ve gone through some programs to correct their behavior? And the majority of them come out worse than when they went in,” she said. “County Council needs to address this issue. If they care about the community they will wake up and address this head-on.”
And instead of mass incarceration, McNeill’s office wants to help people, saying they’re not defending crimes, but rather defending people.
“People say they hope justice is served, but that’s just a cleaned-up way to say revenge is served. How do we want our community to be shaped?” she said. “We are a problem-solving agency. I’m offering my office as a solution-based agency because we’re involved in these problems on a daily basis.”
Contact Kelly Duncan at 864-943-5648 or on Twitter @KellyWriter1993.