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Should Cities Pay Criminals to Not Commit Crimes?

7 minute read

For the past five years, Richmond, Calif., has identified the young men (and they’re mostly men) most at risk of either being killed or killing someone themselves, convinced them to join a mentorship program, and paid them not to commit crimes. The program has been widely reported on, and a handful of other cities are considering following Richmond’s lead. Last month, the city council in Washington, D.C., which saw a 54% increase in homicides last year, voted unanimously in favor of a similar policy, though it remains to be seen whether D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will implement it.

Mayor Bowser opposes the plan because, among other reasons, it’s never been studied rigorously in a controlled experiment. Officials in Richmond, which is just north of Berkeley, Calif., and across the bay from San Francisco, have attributed the city’s halved murder rate to the program, called the Operation Peacekeeper Fellowship, but critics argue there is no way to know whether the drop is the result of the program or other, unstudied factors.

It’s controversial for other reasons, too. The men who run the fellowship, all of whom are themselves former offenders, recruit the 50 most at-risk young men to mentor. Many of the participants are still involved in criminal activity, which their mentors do not report—they don’t cooperate with police. When the city started paying the young men who enrolled and stayed involved in the program as much as $1,000 a month, for a maximum total of $9,000 over 18 months, with no real strings attached, critics said that the program was rewarding people for past violence or criminal activity. It’s no surprise that the program’s founder disagrees. “[W]hat’s really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work,” DeVone Boggan, director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond, which runs the program, told the Washington Post. “[A]nd it’s definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems.” This program, then, isn’t about giving away money. It’s about rewarding people for doing a different kind of work, and creating an environment within which they are able to do it.

In some ways, the Richmond fellowship shares an ideological bent with an earlier program in Chicago called Cure Violence, portrayed in the 2011 film “The Interrupters.” While the Chicago program didn’t actually hand over cash, it recognized that young men in general, and black and Latino youths in particular, in the most violent areas of the city were as likely to be victims of violent crime as they were to commit them. It treated the violence experienced in those communities as a public health issue, and employed former gang members to try to find the people involved in ongoing conflicts and cool them down. Like Richmond, the goal was to protect people rather than criminalize them, a new and revolutionary approach to curbing violence.

The Richmond program’s addition of money adds another dimension. In many cities, the people involved in crime, especially drug crimes and the violent crimes that tend to go with them, are responding to economic pressures as much as anything else. More than any other group, young black men suffer from higher unemployment and incarceration rates and lower rates of high school graduation than any other demographic group. They have less access to health care, and score low on well-being metrics, especially if economic conditions worsen in their city or region. They don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods. They’re often responding to these conditions when they become involved in crime, so perhaps the solution, particularly after so many other attempts have failed, is to create monetary incentives on the side of public safety.

Moreover, the Richmond program isn’t just giving its fellows money. It’s also creating an environment where the young men get together, talk about their futures, write down goals, and make plans for achieving them. Researchers have repeatedly found that such “future orientation” is a powerful, motivating force. When programs give young people access to savings accounts and seed money early in their lives, they think more strategically about their futures. In some ways, the money in the Richmond program is just an early-adulthood version of that. The fellowship is also a new professional network, one that can help the fellows build a ladder outside a life of crime, and build life skills they can use in the workforce, in their families, and in their communities. D.C. Mayor Bowser has said she thinks the money on such a fellowship would be better spent on job training, but it’s hard to imagine D.C. implementing a job-training program with enough funding to really address the problem, and be as specifically targeted as one like the Richmond fellowship.

There are likely less tangible influences on the young men participating, too. To be mentored so aggressively is to know that someone unrelated to you cares a great deal about what happens to you. “I think these young men are literally dying for positive, healthy relationships. They are dying as a result of despair and a lack of hope, and what these relationships do—what this agency is all about—is dealing and delivering large doses of hope,” Boggan told Al Jazeera in June 2014. “Our theory of change is simple: I want them to desire to live.”

Boggan and other advocates treat the issue like an emergency, and it would be hard to look at the status of violence in some cities and disagree. “We don’t have any model fellows—we’re not graduating law school students here,” one of the program managers told the Post. “All we’re trying to do is to get these guys to stop killing each other.” Yet it’s hard not to see the program as, perhaps, shortsighted. The high rates of violence and incarceration in the United States, poor educational attainment, lower health outcomes for the worst off—all are strongly related to the unusually high poverty rate and weak safety net in the U.S. compared to most other industrialized countries.

A solution like the Richmond fellows program, and other attention-grabbing reforms in fields like education, criminal justice, and substance abuse treatment, might just be band-aids that address symptoms rather than the root cause: The poverty that politicians half-heartedly address. We could marshal our nation’s enormous wealth to shore up and increase any number of programs to ensure that every child in the United States has quality early and K-12 education, quality child care, enough food to eat, parents who have access to the money they need to raise them and good job-training and work opportunities—something much more sustained and robust than many existing job-training programs—mental and physical health care, and safe communities. Or we could wait until they become adults after several years of economic deprivation, violence, and trauma, spend a little money on them and hope for the best. And since we’re not doing the former, perhaps a band-aid is better than letting the wound just bleed.

Monica Potts is a writer based in Manassas, Virginia, and a fellow with the New America Foundation Asset Building Program. Follow her on Twitter.

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The New America Weekly. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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