Drawing on its expertise in rural development and community safety, LISC is helping a team of local leaders to reduce crime and build community in three southeastern Kentucky counties. With a federal grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the partners are finding new and creative strategies to address the unique conditions and terrain of Appalachia—strategies that may serve as a model for similar efforts in other parts of rural America.
For the past five years, LISC has been the national training and technical assistance provider for the federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) program, an initiative of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance which helps communities, local law enforcement and researchers collaborate in tackling high crime in specific places. Since BCJI’s inception, most of the grants have gone to urban communities, many with common problems, players and terrain, which makes strategy-sharing and collaboration across sites especially effective.
Over time, a growing number of smaller towns and rural communities have been awarded BCJI grants—to date, six of the 65 BCJI sites have been in rural America. But the settings and conditions of these rural focus areas are distinct, and demand new kinds of partnerships and problem-solving. As these programs unfold, LISC is drawing on its expertise in rural development and community safety to support a range of crime reduction efforts that are unique to rural BCJI sites, and could ultimately serve as models for rural programs across the country.
When Berea, Kentucky became a BCJI Planning and Implementation grantee in 2015, the team leaders knew it would be a good match. Youth crime was rising in parts of southeastern Kentucky, and drug abuse—particularly of pharmaceutical opioids—had become a devastating and growing concern. The area’s poverty rate is almost double the national average and the average per capita income is less than $20,000.
The BCJI team also knew that they couldn’t simply model their work on what their urban counterparts had done. The initiative is named for Berea College, which houses Partners for Education, the program’s fiscal agent and lead agency. But it covers a huge swath of rural Appalachian Kentucky, including counties that have previously received federal investment, and where LISC partners have been working for years.
The target area now includes three counties and 1,300 square miles, with 77,053 residents but no town with a population greater than 10,000. Many children ride a school bus for an hour each way on country roads to get to school, and the area’s law enforcement includes more than a dozen police departments—some with as few as three officers.
With little precedent for how to make the BCJI initiative work in such a rural setting, the Berea team and their research partner, the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University based in Fairfax, VA, harnessed local knowledge and experience to craft a planning process based on what they’ve come to call their “three pillars”: collective impact, cultural research, and so-called “bright spots”—sites that could appeal to youth in such a way as to undercut the allure of crime hotspots. Today, with the plan complete and the partners beginning implementation, it’s clear their approach offers ideas and strategies that will be relevant for other BCJI initiatives, both rural and urban.
The first pillar, collective impact, is an all-hands-on-deck strategy that brings together investment from various sectors, led by the backbone agency, Partners for Education. Thus far, the collaboration to come up with a coordinated strategy has been unprecedented for the region.
“The BCJI program has brought police departments to the table with teachers and business owners as well as residents,” says Sherry Scott, director of programs for Partners for Education. “They’re all very excited about opportunities to have a more active role with youth.”
The project also brought in new partners dedicated to community building and crime reduction. More than a dozen local churches in the three counties, for example, are working together for the first time around positive youth development, using their relationships to families living in remote locations to connect with at-risk kids. For the purposes of the BCJI work, they’re talking about out-of-the-box collaborations as well, sharing responsibilities like transportation for afterschool activities.
The second pillar—cultural research—is helping fill an information gap the team knew they’d encounter: crime data is relatively hard to come by in the Berea BCJI target area. The smallest measured geographic area is by ZIP code—which can cover more than a hundred square miles in Appalachian Kentucky—and because police response to a remote home in the hills can take more than 45 minutes, many crimes simply go unreported.
During the planning process, experienced interviewers spoke one-on-one with service providers and residents, primarily youth, about where trouble could usually be found, the typical types of risky behavior, and what kind of programs would be effective to make a difference. They learned, among other things, that hotspots in these rural counties are moving targets, far less static than they tend to be in urban areas, where a vacant house or a liquor store might be the locus of criminal activity for months or even years. In the Berea target area, potential criminal activity is often planned via social media, and might change from place to place, from one day to the next.
“Appalachian culture is very much one of storytelling,” explained Jenna Meglen, the Berea BCJI project director. “These interviews gave us a youth voice and we heard about things that we didn’t realize were going on from just looking at the data.” The interviews, in fact, were so rich and revealing that the recordings have been archived in the Berea College library.
The initiative’s third pillar, adding “bright spots” to the standard BCJI focus on crime hot spots, has been guided in large part by the information gleaned from that cultural research. Because of difficulties of bringing increased law enforcement resources to isolated places where youth were getting into trouble—spots like a former strip mine miles from any town—the team decided to make these hot spots less appealing by emphasizing the pull of positive youth programs. In Harlan County, the Boys and Girls Club is planning to beef up their programming, for instance, and a faith-based organization in Clay County is opening a youth camp, Impact Outdoors, on a 36-acre site in the mountains.
One of the hallmarks of these programs has been the involvement of youth themselves in the planning and implementation of programs like Impact Outdoors and an arts showcase in Bell County. “At the start, we didn’t realize community redevelopment would be such a big priority to our stakeholders, and we didn’t expect such a marriage of youth development and community revitalization,” Scott says. “But it’s really enriched the programs.”