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First-of-its-kind program aims to stop youth, gang violence in Tennessee

FOX 17 News

A first-of-its-kind program in Tennessee is offering at-risk youth that are in the court system a chance to leave the gang life.

Efforts from law enforcement across the state continue to target young people prone to entering the gang life. These efforts come as an alleged gang member pleads guilty to second-degree murder for the 2015 killing of 13-year-old C'Asia Patton.

The Gang Resistance Intervention Program -- also known as GRIP Court -- pairs young offenders with probation officers and mentors that become guiding forces in their lives. By providing some consistency in the teens' lives, GRIP Court aims to create a culture of trust between teen and justice system, something that is missing in the lives of young men skeptical of authority.

"The whole reason a lot of times they turn to those gangs is because they're looking for that unity," Hannah Meeks, a probation officer that works primarily with young gang members, said. "They build that [trust] and that's when you see the change in them."

Midstate teens also have former gang member Ron Johnson as an ally in their corner. Johnson was a TSU football star and NFL player who turned to gang violence after a tumultuous life that included his mother's killing in a Memphis housing project.

"I always believe: the greatest thing we can have young or old alike is to help them to see whatever thoughts good bad or indifferent -- to help them see it for themselves," said Johnson, a former employee of Nashville's Oasis Center. "They're just ordinary 15, 16, 17 year old young people who are fighting a battle they don't understand. That's an inside job. That's what I try to tap into."

The common denominator between GRIP Court and Johnson's work is trust and stability. Johnson is a mentor in their lives and an example of a life turned around. GRIP Court also gives the young men a path toward a more peaceful life that ends with a stable job.

"You're more than what somebody says about you," Johnson says. "You're more than what people think. Worry not what somebody says about you. Live so that nobody will believe them. That's the key to my life."

Experts report that the Gangster Disciples are the largest recruiters of young gangsters in Tennessee. There's not an obvious monopoly of one group working more than the rest in the midstate.

Joseph Hendry, 23, pleaded guilty on Monday to second-degree murder. He's one of three suspects charged in the murder of C'Asia Patton, also known as C'asia Watkins, back in January 2015.

Police said Watkins was lying in bed at her grandmother's house when a bullet tore through the wall and struck her in the head. The bullet was one of close to 20 that ripped into the Sycamore Street home on that night.

Johnson's goal is to get to young men before they ever get to the point of killing or committing violence that will change their lives forever.

"If you can show a young person his or her self, you can see change so much faster and so much better," Johnson said.

Johnson's website can be found here, and he asks anyone that might need his guidance or help with a loved one to email him: ronjohnsonspeaking@gmail.com.

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