Jailing an insane number of people doesn't actually stop violence -- but this simple theory could

Richmond, California, had 46 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2007, making it one of the most deadly places in the United States — up there with murder capitals like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans, Louisiana

In 2014, that number dropped to just 11 murders per 100,000 residents

That’s a 76% decrease in just seven years. 

What allowed for the change? 

For one, there is the incredible work of the Office of Neighbourhood Safety, a public-private partnership that targets the young men most likely to shoot or get shot by a gun. The outreach team then slowly builds a relationship with these at-risk men, and provides them stipends for following a “life map” they create of their personal goals, in addition to providing dependable, non-police attention and mentorship. 

It’s a revolutionary approach. 

In a way, it comes down to the way we frame the problem. 

The operating metaphor here is violence as disease:

• Traditionally, we treat people who carry the disease of violence by “quarantine”: they get sent to jail. 

• But with the Office of Neighbourhood Safety approach, people who carry the disease of violence are treated by “inoculation”: they get an ‘artificial immunization’ by way of social structures.

As Tim Murphy notes on Mother Jones, the thought is that if you could ‘inoculate’ the greatest ‘carriers of violence,’ you’d prevent outbreaks of violence, thereby stabilizing entire communities or even the whole city. 

University of California-Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, who served as an advisor for the Office of Neighbourhood Safety, explained that violence — like disease — happens across social networks. 

Violence in Richmond “came down to a small number of people,” he tells the Washington Post. “Violence tends to be concentrated in certain social areas, and most of the people who engage in criminal violence engage people they know, or are related to, and it spreads from generation to generation.”

Equally as intriguing, psychology research suggests that the metaphors we use to describe social problems like violence frame the solutions we intuitively propose for them. 

Oberlin College psychologist Paul Thibodeau researches the way language informs cognition. 

“Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues,” he writes

He showed as much in a 2011 paper, where his team asked 1,482 students to read two news reports about crime and then describe their approaches to combating it. Crime was described in one of two ways: as a “virus infecting a city” or a “wild beast preying on a city.” 

Depending on the metaphor, respondents had vastly different takes:

• A full 75% of people who read the “wild beast” metaphor opted for punishment-oriented responses to crime, like building jails or calling in the National Guard, and only 25% said that social improvements like investing in education would help.

• Only 56% of people who read the “virus” metaphor recommended punitive action — 44% said that social reforms were the thing to do. 

What the Office of Neighbourhood Safety suggests is that we need to adopt the virus metaphor if cities are going to find long-term solutions to reducing the numbers of murders. 

“The idea was the old carrot and stick thing was not enough,” said 
Krisberg, the University of California criminologist. “If you can’t stabilise their financial situation, they will go back to dealing dope, and drugs is a dangerous business that leads to shootings.” 

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