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March 27, 2016

"Cities begin to challenge a bedrock of justice: They’re paying criminals not to kill"

DollarsThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Washington Post article about an alternative sentencing program sure to stir questions and controversy.  Here are some of the details (with a key line emphasized):

The odds were good that Lonnie Holmes, 21, would be the next person to kill or be killed in this working-class suburb north of San Francisco.  Four of his cousins had died in shootings.  He was a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting, police said. And he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun.

But when Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money.  They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.

Cities across the country, beginning with the District of Columbia, are moving to copy Richmond’s controversial approach because early indications show it has helped reduce homicide rates.  But the program requires governments to reject some basic tenets of law enforcement even as it challenges notions of appropriate ways to spend tax dollars.

In Richmond, the city has hired ex-convicts to mentor dozens of its most violent offenders and allows them to take unconventional steps if it means preventing the next homicide.  For example, the mentors have coaxed inebriated teenagers threatening violence into city cars, not for a ride to jail but home to sleep it off — sometimes with loaded firearms still in their waistbands.  The mentors have funded trips to South Africa, London and Mexico City for rival gang members in the hope that shared experiences and time away from the city streets would ease tensions and forge new connections.  And when the elaborate efforts at engagement fail, the mentors still pay those who pledge to improve, even when, like Holmes, they are caught with a gun, or worse — suspected of murder.

The city-paid mentors operate at a distance from police.  To maintain the trust of the young men they’re guiding, mentors do not inform police of what they know about crimes committed.  At least twice, that may have allowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.

And yet, interest in the program is surging among urban politicians.  Officials in Miami, Toledo, Baltimore and more than a dozen cities in between are studying how to replicate Richmond’s program.  The District of Columbia is first in line.

Implementing the Richmond model has emerged as a central fight this year between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the D.C. Council. Bowser (D) is opposed to the strategy, arguing that the city should instead use its resources to fund jobs programs and that there is little independent analysis of the Richmond program.  The mayor did not include money for it in her proposed 2017 budget released Thursday, and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she is skeptical of the need for the Richmond-style program and has not seen sufficient data to verify its results.

She and Kevin Donahue, Bow­ser’s deputy mayor for public safety, question the veracity of Richmond’s claims of having saved so many of the city’s most violent offenders, since mentors — and not police — pick the participants and there has not been a control group used to measure outcomes. “There’s never been a real evaluation of the program,” Lanier said. “They didn’t design the program to allow it to be evaluated,” Donahue added.

But this month, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the idea as the best response to a surge of violent deaths that rocked the city last year. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has promised to shift money from the mayor’s other law-enforcement priorities to launch the program. He said the successes in Richmond cannot be ignored by city leaders serious about reducing crime.  That’s because five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort....

Richmond’s decision to pay people to stay out of trouble began a decade ago during a period of despair.  In 2007, Richmond’s homicide tally had surged to 47, making it the country’s sixth-deadliest city per capita.  In the 20 years prior to that, Richmond lost 740 people to gun violence, and more than 5,000 had been injured by a bullet.  Elected leaders of the heavily African American city of about 100,000 began treating homicides as a public health emergency....

Operation Peacemaker Fellowship is working with its fourth class of recruits, and [Boggan] no longer needs to wow participants with money upfront.  Dozens of former fellows on the streets of Richmond — alive and not in jail — are his best advertisement, he said.

Those in the program begin by drafting a “life map” and setting goals — such as applying for a job, going back to school or communicating better with family.  They meet with facilitators who, unbeknown to the young men, are psychologists or sociologists. Together, they talk through issues in what amounts to stealth therapy. If they remain engaged for six months, meeting with mentors several times a week, they start to receive monthly payments between $1 and $1,000, depending on their level of participation.  The maximum amount paid is $9,000 over the 18-month fellowship.  The program has handed out $70,000 a year, on average, since 2010, Boggan said.

Boggan believes that travel is another key to the program’s success.  He sets aside $10,000 per fellow for trips that are often the first time participants have left the state or the country.  But fellows must agree to partner with someone they have either tried to kill or who attempted to kill them. “Wild, right?” Boggan says.  “But they get out there and realize, ‘Hey, this cat’s just like me.’ ” Boggan’s measure of success: No fellows who have traveled together have been suspected in subsequent shootings against one another.

Boggan and his staff are used to questions — and criticism — about the money.  How do they know it doesn’t go to drugs? Or bullets?  They maintain that the money is an indispensable tool, a way to keep kids engaged long enough to make a difference in their lives.  “This is controversial, I get it,” Boggan said.  “But what’s really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work, and it’s definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems.”...

Many details of how the District would replicate Richmond’s program have yet to be determined, but one aspect is clearly more complicated than in Richmond.  While the California strategy relies on private donors to fund the stipends and travel, the District would probably use roughly a half-million dollars annually in taxpayer money.  Asked whether he could justify the expense if it came from the city’s general fund, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt was uncertain. “I’d try really hard to find outside funding,” he said.

I fully understand the how controversial this program could be if framed as a "cash for killers" program that use taxpayer moneys to provide cash rewards to the most violent offenders simply for making efforts not to keep killing. But, as the first phrase highlighted above is meant to suggest, if this program is framed as a public health initiative that helps keep young people alive and healthly for minimal costs, then this program could look and should sound much more palatable to taxpayers. Of particular note, the latest DC budget proposal under the "Health and Human Services" line item, allocates $800,000 to something called the "Joyful Foods initiative." The early success of the Peacemaker Fellowships in Richmond, California suggests that devoting that money to reducing gun violence in DC may contribute much more to health and human services than making sure food in the District is viewed as joyful.

Not to be overlooked, especially when we focus on a town like DC where political money flows from private sources to all sort of political advocacy groups, it would seem very possible that enterprising individuals might be able to fundraise effectively for this cause. For example, a little research has revealed that both the NRA and the Brady Campaigns spend over $3,000,000 annually lobbying about firearm laws and policies. If both groups could simply be convinced to spend 10% of these lobbying budgets on a DC gun violence prevention program like Peacemaker Fellowships, this would itself provide $600,000 in resources for this kind of programming.

March 27, 2016 at 10:35 AM | Permalink

Comments

"I fully understand the potential incapacitative benefits of incarceration for dangerous people with a history of seriously risky or harmful behaviors." A quote from the post immediately below regarding animal cruelty.

And yet in this post there is a group advocating paying dangerous young men with guns not to get arrested for another gun crime (even if suspected of serious crime). The professed goal, to save them from themselves. What an incredibly corrosive signal to send to the people who do not chose dangerous and self-destructive lifestyles.

If they can change their behavior for money, that means they can change their behavior. If not, incapacitation works. I would suggest not hiring accessories after the fact ("lowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.") with wads of cash to give to those who should simply be removed from society.

Posted by: David | Mar 27, 2016 12:55:17 PM

I've got to agree with David, obeying the law at this level is not something that should draw any sort of reward.

If someone is unable or unwilling to obey the stricture against murder (or even less violent acts like burglary) then society should simply remove them. It should not be up to society to save such people.

Rewarding thugs is simply a terrible idea all around.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 28, 2016 3:07:37 AM

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