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As gun violence plagues U.S. cities, Minneapolis extends innovative diversion program in which eligible offenders take courses to learn why they turn to guns

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the University of Chicago are studying the Pathway diversion program, and some 15 prosecutors have reached out to learn more about Pathway.

Empty courtroom
After someone is charged with misdemeanor gun possession — and they have no prior record — they take a diagnostic assessment. They may be eligible to enter the program by pleading guilty in court to the charge and agreeing to a two-year stay of adjudication.

Attorneys at the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office (CAO) stumbled on a troubling realization: The majority of those convicted of misdemeanor gun possession are young Black men with no prior record who say they carry “for protection” and who, after their initial run-in with the legal system, seem to lose hope and go down a path of crime and stints in custody. 

“Further analysis of the data showed that after being convicted by the CAO for the gross misdemeanor offense, approximately 70 percent of these individuals went on to commit new crimes, many of which were violent felonies,” according to city documents

The office wanted to divert these young Black men, and anyone else, from having a criminal record and feeling as though their only option — or all they are worth — is a life of crime.

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But the attorney’s office didn’t know how to go about that. So the city announced a request for proposals in 2017.

Urban Ventures, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, answered the call and created a program that offers first-time gun possession offenders with no prior record a set of courses for understanding themselves and their choices. Upon graduation, the offender’s record is wiped clean.

This unprecedented approach, called the Pathway Gun Diversion Program, is the first of its kind in the country and has garnered attention from academics and prosecutors in other states. In April, Minneapolis increased funding for the initiative by $480,000 and extended the program through 2025. 

How it works

After someone is charged with misdemeanor gun possession — and they have no prior record — they take a diagnostic assessment. They may be eligible to enter the program by pleading guilty in court to the charge and agreeing to a two-year stay of adjudication. 

When that probation period is up, the individual enrolls in the Pathway diversion program, which involves nine months of classes. Courses, which are taught by licensed social workers and mental health professionals, are done in three phases, said Pathway program director Priscilla Brown, who created the program and teaches courses.

“Phase one is about healing from the pain,” said Brown.

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Brown said the people who come to Pathway — the vast majority of whom are Black men — landed there because of decisions that were influenced by trauma. 

“We’re talking about intergenerational trauma,” said Brown. “We’re not just talking about the trauma you have just waking up every day hearing gun violence, whether you’re a part of it or not; just knowing that it’s in your community, in your family. There’s domestic violence and abuse. We’re also talking about the intergenerational trauma going all the way back to slavery that they don’t even know about because they are not even old enough to have the stories told to them.”

The course also addresses trauma from day-to-day racism and inequity, as well as biological trauma like when a child is born from a woman who was physically abused during pregnancy. 

“Trauma is an enormous piece and we only hit the surface of it,” said Brown. “For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve thought about it and actually tried to wrap their minds around it.”

A number of participants are often shocked when Brown begins the trauma curriculum. 

“They always say, ‘I thought this was a gun program,’” said Brown. “And I always say, ‘What did you think? You were gonna come here and I was gonna teach you how to kill others?’”

The end of phase one is about being able to control emotions and anger and make rational decisions. 

Phase two tackles substance abuse, both in discovering the roots behind the substance use and how to overcome the affliction. It’s a new phase that Brown started a couple of years into the program because she felt substance abuse was a large factor in leading to emotionally driven decisions. 

The final phase is called the “enrichment phase.” 

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“There, [participants] are looking at more of living skills and goal-planning, employment interviewing skills,” said Brown. They also discuss basic finances like how to maintain credit.

If they graduate, their records are expunged of the misdemeanor gun possession conviction.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the University of Chicago have begun a study on the Pathway diversion program, Brown said, and some 15 prosecutors have reached out to learn more about Pathway.

“When my boss dropped that contract on my desk and said, ‘Here, this is yours, develop a program,’ I was like, ‘what are you talking about? What?’” said Brown. “I had no idea it was going to grow in the way that it is growing.”

Gun culture and masculinity  

The reason many of the Black men in the program are taken aback by the courses in trauma and emotional reasoning — and the reason they started carrying a gun illegally, to begin with — is because Black men have a hard time acknowledging their emotions; let alone working through them, said Brown. 

“There is this thought, like, ‘I’m a man, I’m not doing therapy,’” said Brown. 

That’s not just a Black man thing — that’s just a general man thing, said Rashmi Seneviratne, executive director of the gun violence prevention organization Protect Minnesota.

“In Minnesota in 2020, 68 percent of firearm deaths were suicides, and the majority of those were rural white men,” Seneviratne said. “It’s this idea of toxic masculinity,” said Seneviratne. “This idea of ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ — that seeps in a lot to the rural suicide rates.”

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The toxicity comes with the sense that men are supposed to be “strong, silent types,” said Seneviratne — the type that doesn’t seek help and should never need any. 

That’s why young men of all stripes go out and get a gun, legally or otherwise, so they don’t need anyone else’s help if they feel unsafe or challenged, Brown said. Then, these traumatized men have a gun on them at a moment when their emotions get the better of them. 

“This is why I love Urban Ventures,” said Seneviratne. “I know their work is pretty specific to their community, but they confront toxic masculinity and talk about this emotional component.”

 “By the end, we’ve softened [participants] enough to start thinking about it. It’s my dream to have funding for the people who really want to go into therapy,” said Brown. 

Another of Brown’s goals is to create a program that finds young people before they reach for a gun, a prevention program that addresses trauma and emotional maturity before they are booked with a crime.