HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County leaders discussed a new, multi-million dollar crime prevention program at a press conference on Thursday.
The focus for the $4 million Youth Reinvestment Fund is eliminating gun violence before it happens by focusing on kids and putting money back into grassroots organizations that can help at-risk youth.
Judge Lina Hidalgo joined Commissioner Rodney Ellis and other local leaders Thursday afternoon to announce the fund.
"Research consistently demonstrates that investing in early childhood intervention among at-risk youth effectively decreases the likelihood of young people becoming adult offenders later on in life and saves taxpayer dollars in the long run," Hidalgo's office said in a press release.
Hidalgo said this is the first time a Texas county has created a dedicated fund specifically for reaching at-risk youth.
"I mentioned being smart and tough. We don't have to choose between funding law enforcement and funding initiatives like this. It's about funding what works," Hidalgo said at the press conference Thursday.
"To come up with this program, we took the benefit of what other cities and counties around the country have done," Ellis said. "We did a little cutting and pasting. We could look at what other people tried that did not work."
Ellis said Harris County leaders have already invested more money in traditional law enforcement than previous county leadership, but it will take more than that to reduce crime.
"With young people in the criminal justice system, trying to be rehabilitated is so important. Our system does not treat all young people the same," Ellis said.
According to Ellis, at virtually every stage of the youth criminal justice system, youth of color -- especially Hispanic and African American youth -- receive harsher treatment and harsher sentences than their white counterparts who have essentially identical histories.
In 2020, 98% of the youth in the Harris County Jail were Black or Hispanic, Ellis said.
This comes at a time when gun violence among children is at an all-time high.
According to the New England Journal, overall gun deaths increased by 13.1% from 2019 to 2020. For 1- to 19-year-olds, it went up by 30%.
Over 4,000 children died from gun-related deaths during that period, the New England Journal said.
The CDC now says gun violence was the number one cause of death among adolescents in the U.S. in 2020.
It's a stark change in the country, where for the past 60 years, car accidents have been the number one cause.
During the press conference, Judge Hidalgo and Commissioner Ellis named the nonprofit organization Change Happens as the administrator of the new fund.
Arlene Alvarez, just 9 years old, was shot and killed on Valentine's Day while sitting in the back of her family's truck, caught in the middle of gun violence unrelated to her family.
READ MORE: Mother of 9-year-old shot to death during ATM robbery speaks out: 'I didn't scream loud enough'
"The robber and suspect number two, they were shooting at each other. What did my husband do? He just stepped on the gas," Gwen Alvarez, Arlene's mother, said. "And that's when the shooter, (Tony) Earls, stopped shooting at the robber and just targeted us. He just started shooting at us."
The press release says Change Happens is a local nonprofit organization with decades of experience mentoring, educating and servicing at-risk youth. It will partner with other grassroots organizations across the county engaged in evidence-based work to administer funding and provide technical assistance and other support for the community.