Summer Night Lights—the USAO outside the federal courtroom.
Since 2011, the Office of the United States Attorney for theCentral District of California has been in partnership with the City of Los Angeles to create safer, healthier, and stronger communities in high-crime areas.
When the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development’s (GRYD) was created in 2007 to reduce gang-related violent crime, they determined that a lack of safe and accessible public space, poor economic conditions, and crowded housing situations created high levels of stress within families, pushing kids to the streets and increasing susceptibility to gangs or becoming victims of violence and crime. Furthermore, Los Angeles is park poor, with fewer acres of parks per capita than any major city in the country. This creates unfair disparities in access to parks and recreation for many neighborhoods where the nearest park may not be in walking distance or hasn’t been updated in years.
The Summer Night Lights (SNL) program is a city-wide outreach effort designed to provide young people and their families with alternatives to violence and gang membership.
By keeping the most “dangerous” parks open late at night, several nights a week during the summer when historically crime has reached peak levels, the program shines a light on play and positivity in Los Angeles communities. Live music, food, art, zumba, HIV/AIDS testing … these activities act as safe diversions from the real presence of street violence to some 700 participants every night and help build social connections in hopes of safer, healthier, and stronger communities.
City statistics show that even as crime rises in Los Angeles, crime stays the same or even decreases in the areas where there are Summer Night Lights activities. Last year, this was true for 26 out of the 32 sites.
District Judge Birotte, when asked about his legacy as U.S. Attorney from 2010–2014, has stated that one of his greatest accomplishments was getting the Office first involved in the Summer Night Lights program, and with the city of Los Angeles, LAPD, and community intervention workers, in 2011. The participation and partnership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and SNL has provided an ongoing platform for community members and federal lawyers and staff to meet and engage outside the federal courtroom.
“When you see folks in the community, they ask you what you do. You tell them that you are a prosecutor — one person said to me, he said, ‘I thought all you do is put us in jail.’ (laughs) To have prosecutors out there connecting with the community, it’s not about just putting people in jail, we do that but it’s more than that.”
It is not about just putting people in jail, but protecting and defending the rights and interests of those living in the Central District. Direct involvement with the community facilitates a conversation about those rights and interests, outside of the so-called ivory towers of the federal institution, where local members of the community feel listened to and understood.
In 2012, the Office even accepted an invitation to “adopt” Jim Gilliam Park and Recreation Center in the Baldwin Village neighborhood of South LA. Visiting the park after work during the summertime when SNL runs, volunteers from all over the Office, including AUSAS, SAUSAs, staff, externs, and the U.S. Attorney, have come out to grill burgers and judge skate-boarding competitions and show off their nail polish skills.
A group of federal prosecutors also led a successful petition in 2015 to resurface and refurbish the old tennis courts in the park where volunteers had conducted youth tennis training clinics.
Another youth tennis clinic the USAO runs outside from the Summer Night Lights in Compton, California also starts up during the summer months. As part of the Violent Reduction Network initiative, the Office partners with the Southern California Tennis Association, the National Juvenile Tennis League, the Pete Brown Scholarship Fund, and the City of Compton to provide year around tennis classes at Lueders Park. This popular after school sport program, like SNL is a critical prevention effort. “I said a prayer to thank God for this tennis program,” said one mother for the Office’s newsletter this month.
No wonder Judge Birotte, who first started this community outreach initiative, thinks seeing the Office connect with the community they serve in a different way is “truly heartwarming”.