WORCESTER — José Vazquez of Worcester knew only a rough life.The 21-year-old said growing up, he ran with the “wrong crowd” and got into all sorts of trouble, especially with local police.”I’ve been locked up a few times,” he said.Monday morning at the Worcester Youth Center, with Gov. Deval Patrick at his side, Mr. Vazquez was instead the poster child for the success of a 2011 initiative launched by the Patrick administration to keep troubled young men on the right track. The Safe and Successful Youth Initiative — a $22.4 million investment — provides guidance and assistance to participants, most of them with violent histories. Classes for boys and men ages 14 to 24 are offered on topics ranging from carpentry to résumé crafting.Mr. Vazquez, a new father and a student at Quinsigamond Community College, said he was a participant in the local program and the mentorship he received changed his life.”One of the outreach coordinators just kept reaching out to me and was persistent. … That was about two years ago,” he said. “I’ve done job readiness programs. I’ve been able to actually get employed.””If I didn’t have this opportunity at the time … I don’t know where I’d be,” he told the crowd that gathered at the youth center on Chandler Street.

Gov. Patrick stressed in a public meeting that the initiative — in partnership with law enforcement program providers and community leaders — saves not only lives, but money for taxpayers through crime reduction.

“This is how we invest right now to make a stronger commonwealth over time,” he said. “This initiative was intended to provide the brightest future for our most destructive, most disconnected and most disengaged young people.”

SSYI is active in 11 cities with the highest violent crime counts in Massachusetts, including Worcester, Boston, Springfield and Lawrence, as well as Holyoke, which the state listed in 2012 as having one of the highest rates of violent crime in the state. The initiative focuses “strategically” on youths who have a proven risk for criminal behavior, have been a victim of violence or are related to someone who fits those characteristics.

Over the last two years, SSYI cities experienced 139 fewer violent crime incidents on average per month compared to municipalities not involved with the program, the governor said. In 2013, SSYI cities saw a 31 percent reduction in aggravated assaults compared to 2009, as well as a 25 percent reduction in homicides, according to a press release. Officials say at-risk youth are 42 percent more likely to be incarcerated compared to those involved in these local programs.

Worcester Deputy Police Chief Mark S. Roche said Worcester now has about 110 at-risk young people in the program. According to an American Institute for Research city evaluation conducted this year, Worcester had 116 fewer victims of violent crime per year, on average, as a result of the initiative.

“Sgt. Miguel Lopez and the Worcester Police Department identify youth they believe would be good candidates for (it),” he explained. “We’re watching for gang violence and youth violence. We recognize it may not always be related to gang (activity).”

Deputy Chief Roche said Worcester is lucky to benefit also from the Sen. Charles E. Shannon Community Safety Initiative grant program and stressed men like Mr. Vazquez are “the story” when it comes to the success of local efforts.

“This one initiative is very successful,” the officer said. “It is reducing violence.”

Officials say Massachusetts is the only state taking a “comprehensive, research-based approach” to combating violent crime across multiple cities. The American Institute for Research has worked with the state Department of Health and Human Services on three separate studies to evaluate the outcomes of the program.

In Worcester, the program partners with Iglesia Cristiana de la Comunidad (Christian Community Church), Straight Ahead Ministries and the Worcester Youth Center to provide educational support, workforce development, subsidized employment, mentorship and behavioral health programming.

Byline: Samantha Allen
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