Why We Should Pay Gangs
It’s not an easy pitch to voters: At the end of each month, we’re going to use taxpayer money to reward young, unemployed Black men with a check for up to $1,000 — because they haven’t shot anyone. Oh, and we’re going to take them on trips around the world too. Good luck getting re-elected after passing that one.
Still, the idea is piquing the interest of municipalities after the Northern California city of Richmond, worn to the fray by violence, did just that — though, in this particular instance, the funding for traveling and stipends comes from private foundations while the city pays operational expenses. And while the media may sensationalize Richmond’s Operation Peacemaker Fellowship as paying off gang members, the approach is worth the attention it’s attracting.
"Traditional strategies of punishment don’t work well, especially when it comes to people with very little to lose."
The thinking goes that by identifying the most lethal, and inherently vulnerable, community members and then giving them a meaningful alternative to violence, the whole community will get safer. The program is not just about payoffs; it also steers participants down a life path they otherwise might never have found. How much money the youths — the program cuts off at age 25 — make depends on the effort they put into changing course. Few earn the maximum amount of $9,000 over the fellowship’s duration of 18 months. But even if they did, it would be cheaper in the long run. One academic study found the average murder — including victim losses along with the costs of police investigations, justice procedures and extended incarceration — costs the public almost $17 million.
Now, there is an obvious argument against this approach: Most people aren’t doing drive-bys and yet they don’t get a check. That’s not the way America works. You get punished for breaking laws, not rewarded for abiding them. Some even see the program as rewarding previous illegal behavior.
But at this point, psychologists have pretty definitely proven “the best way to change behavior is through incentives,” says Barry Krisberg, a University of California, Berkeley professor of law and social policy who has advised Richmond policymakers. “Traditional strategies of punishment don’t work well, especially when it comes to people with very little to lose.” That’s the philosophy of the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), which launched in 2007. Several times a year ONS staffers, or “change agents” — mostly ex-cons who now work the streets advocating against violence — comb police records and their own raw intel to pinpoint the most likely shooters. At first the money was the hook, says Angela Wolf, with the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, which evaluated the program. But the one-on-one time with fellows and chances to travel have had more impact. “I think very often the problem people have with it is who’s getting the stipend,” says the enigmatic brain behind ONS, DeVone Boggan. “Does this country really want young Black men to stop shooting each other?”
Killings plunged from 47 in 2007 (the year ONS launched) to 11 in 2014.
OK, but does the program reduce shootings? The numbers can’t prove it conclusively but they suggest a good case. When the program started, Richmond logged 47 killings and was ranked one of the country’s most lethal enclaves. By 2014, its murder rate was the lowest since 1971, with only 11 criminal homicides. ONS can’t take all the credit. There’s also been a national decline in gun murders since then, and around the time ONS hit the streets a new, progressive police chief took the helm of the historically corrupt Richmond Police Department.
The police do not work with ONS, though, and there have been tensions and, sometimes, embarrassments. In 2011, a brawl broke out when rival gang members arrived at City Hall to pick up their checks. The ONS staff refused to hand over the names of those involved. Bill Johnson, director of the National Association of Police Organizations, says that can send a message that police aren’t part of the solution — which in turn could be “corroding the social fabric we all have to live under.”
On the other hand, it could be proof the model is working. Sure, a nose was broken, but no one was killed.