It Pays To Keep Out Of Trouble

In the face of an intractable violent crime epidemic, Richmond, California, decided in 2007 to try out a new approach to the problem: paying people not to kill each other. Tim Murphy reports on the “Office of Neighborhood Safety”:

Here’s how it works:

A team of seven “neighborhood change agents” patrol the streets like beat cops, keeping tabs on the 50 high-risk members of what [DeVone] Boggan [who designed the initiative] calls the “focus group.” The coordinators, most of them former convicts, check in with their sources at corner stores, barbershops, and churches and report back daily on what they’ve heard. “I want us to hunt ‘em like they hunt, and I want us to hunt for information,” Boggan says. “We have better information than the police.” Once a certain level of trust has been established between the coordinators and their targets, a meeting is arranged, and the pitch is made.

In exchange for shunning dangerous behavior, ONS fellows receive anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per month, depending on their progress following a “life map” of personal and professional goals.

If they team up with someone from a rival community to renounce violence altogether, they can get even more money—though that’s yet to happen. Fellows can receive stipends for 9 of their 18 months in the program. The city gave ONS $1.2 million for its operating budget last year, but the money for the stipends came from a handful of private donors, including the health care giant Kaiser Permanente. (A Kaiser spokeswoman says the program is good for “diffusing community tensions and reducing violence,” thereby limiting stress-related health risks like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.)

ONS staffers help fellows take concrete steps toward stability, from providing assistance in getting a driver’s license or a GED to helping raise $5,000 for a merchant-marine training class. Though the program officially cuts off when fellows turn 25, Boggan says ONS tries to stay in touch with them as long as possible.