Cities Begin to Challenge a Bedrock of Justice: They’re Paying Criminals Not to Kill

Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post, March 26, 2016

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.

City leaders credit the program with cutting Richmond’s homicide rate to less than half and helping it shed its reputation as one of the nation’s deadliest cities.

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Boggan and his streetwise crew of ex-cons selected an initial group of 21 gang members and suspected criminals for the program. One night in 2010, he persuaded them to come to city hall, where he invited them to work with mentors and plan a future without guns. As they left, Boggan surprised each one with $1,000–no strings attached.

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Boggan’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship is working with its fourth class of recruits, and he 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.

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Four of the program’s fellows have died since 2010, including two who were killed by other fellows, said Boggan and Vaughn. The suspected killers have not been charged and remain in the program.

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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.

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