Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A city program in Richmond, California, gives its most violent offenders a stipend to keep their noses clean. Could it work in Baltimore?
Terrence McCoy recently offered up an interesting solution to Baltimore’s homicide crisis in The Washington Post: A program like one in Richmond, California, that identifies residents with the most violent histories of criminal behavior and pays them to stay out of trouble. Under Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety Initiative, participants receive monthly stipends up to $1,000 for refraining from violence and following a “life map” regimen of GED classes, job training, anger-management counseling and other forms of criminal-conversion therapy.
So far, the program appears effective. In less than eight years of existence, the number of killings per year there dropped from 47 in 2007 to just 11 last year. Of course, that drop can’t be credited totally to the program. As pointed out in Mother Jones last year, the declines have also coincided with the arrival of a new police chief who has dramatically reformed policing practices in Richmond. Still, McCoy reports that some in California believe that the Richmond model could have a positive impact in Baltimore, which just suffered its most murderous month in 40 years.
Let’s take a look at ”the Richmond Model.” First, it’s not novel. It’s not even the first of its kind. As Mother Jones points out, Boston employed a similar program in the 1990s. In Pittsburgh, the One Vision, One Life initiative, which began in 2004, was closer to an apples-to-apples version of what Richmond started three years later. Murders continued to escalate in the first few years of One Vision, peaking in 2008 with 120 homicides, but then made a precipitous drop in 2009 down to 88 murders the following year, then dropping even lower in 2011 (check out this graphic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). And then there’s the Chicago Ceasefire program, made popular in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters.
None of those other cities’ programs lasted long, though. Boston’s seemed to end rather disastrously. Pittsburgh’s One Vision, One Life ended in 2012. And Chicago’s Ceasefire is currently in flux, or at least overshadowed by escalating homicide numbers this year. All of these programs have petered out for different reasons, but in the Pittsburgh and Chicago cases, losing city funding has played a major part.
Richmond’s program relies on city funding—$1.2 million in 2013 alone. And the program certainly has its detractors, one of whom sits on Richmond’s city council. For a program like this to last in Richmond—much less Baltimore—it would need a long-term, sustained stream of funding. This would mean that investors couldn’t pull the plug at the first spike of crime, the threat of recession, or due to changes in political administrations. Ending these programs before giving them a chance to bear out is one thing, but the message sent to the young men banking their lives on these programs could be devastating.
To be clear, the participants in these programs aren’t banking that much, financially. The $1,000 a month offered in Richmond would put participants just above the federal poverty line, but would barely meet the burden for those with children. This makes it all the more necessary to keep the funding behind these programs stable. For a program like this to truly be effective—especially in a city like Baltimore, with six times the population of Richmond—a substantial private-capital investment would be needed.
In theory, corporations should want to finance such programs. If CEOs are worried about violence occurring near (or aimed at) their businesses, better to pay prior offenders to stay out of trouble than pay for trouble that halts business later.
Financially incentivizing good behavior is the way of corporate America. However, there will probably come a time in each of these young men’s lives when the cost-benefit of doing something illegal will outweigh that of staying legit. It may not take long to arrive at that point when you’re pulling in only $250 a week. An individual needs to bring in at least twice that amount each week to live on in Baltimore.
Whether Richmond or anywhere else, though, a program that leans too heavily on paying people to fly right seems incomplete if it’s still not dealing with root causes. Cities like Richmond identify violence as a public health issue: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists attention-deficit problems, learning disorders, drug addiction, and emotional distress among the top risk factors for youth violence. Stipends and life-skills training won’t resolve those things, especially in cities where youth have been over-exposed to violent trauma, such as in Baltimore and New Orleans. Perhaps if participation in these programs came with access to free, quality healthcare, they could offer more promise.
A big question not answered in any of these scenarios: How much would it cost to pay police to stop being violent?