In the Bay Area city of Richmond, a government agency pays several dozen men a monthly stipend between $US300 and $US700 to stay away from guns in an effort to help the city reduce gun violence.
The office that runs the program, Richmond Office of Neighbourhood Safety (ONS), targets young men suspected of gun crimes who the organisation believes will be involved as a shooter or victim of gunfire in the near future.
“We are a government agency that has the stated purpose of reducing firearm homicides in the city of Richmond,” Devone Boggan, Director of ONS, told Business Insider. “We are solely interested in what we can do in real time to contribute to the reduction of firearm assaults and deaths.”
ONS was founded in Richmond — a California metropolis of some 98,000 residents 17 miles north of San Francisco — in 2007 in direct response to the shockingly high homicide rate in the city. In 2007, Richmond
had a homicide rate of 45.9 per 100,000 residents (comparable sized California cities had a homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000 residents).
According to an evaluation of ONS by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), the homicide rate in 2007 was a 13-year high for the city and was a byproduct of the recession which disproportionately hit Richmond’s African-American and Latino communities.
But at the end of 2014, the homicide rate in Richmond had dropped 76% to a 40-year low of 13 per 100,000 residents, and while other factors cited by NCCD including policy changes, policing efforts, and an improved economic climate helped facilitate this shift, many of the Richmond clergy NCCD interviewed for the evaluation credit the ONS for having a major influence on the decline.
As Tim Murphy notes on Mother Jones, ONS’ unique approach focuses on treating violence as a disease. ONS works to identify the people in Richmond who carry the “disease” of violence and inoculate them through their fellowship program — hopefully stabilizing the entire community in the process.
“We are identifying the city’s most lethal young men and asking them to partner with us in a very unique way to help us do something that we cannot do without them … eliminate gun violence,” explains Boggan.
This is how the process works: ONS identifies the 50 people in Richmond who are most likely to be involved with guns and establishes a rapport with them in hopes of recruiting them to be a fellow in the program. Once they agree to join, ONS works with the men to establish a “life map” and personal and professional goals. The fellows are paid once a month based on how well they adhere to the goals they set.
The fellows are only eligible for stipends if they have been in the program for six months and have demonstrated their commitment by staying away from gun violence.
Boggan says all the money provided as stipends comes from private donations, which comprise roughly $US1.5 million of ONS’ $US2.7 million budget (the other $US1.2 million comes from city funds). Overall ONS spends about $US25,000 on each fellow every year, which Boggan asserts is a much cheaper alternative to leaving the men on the street to commit more gun violence (As an example, Boggan says it costs taxpayers $US267,000 for every prisoner in the California penal system).
“We have to admit we are losing a war on urban gun violence that costs America $US229 billion dollars a year,” Boggan says, citing a report from Mother Jones. “We can’t afford not to do better. If we are going to get serious, these kind of impactful, developmental approaches have to be considered.”
According to the evaluation of ONS by NCCD, Boggan’s approach has yielded positive results for the majority of men involved. Of the 68 fellows to go through the fellowship since it began in earnest in 2009, 64 are still alive (94%), 57 have not since been injured by a firearm (84%), and 54 are not suspected of firearm related activity (79%).
“The fact that the large majority of these young men at high risk of involvement in gun violence are alive and have not sustained injuries due to gun violence suggests that the Fellowship’s focus on providing intensive services for this population is working as intended,” the NCCD states in their evaluation.
One anonymous source cited in the NCCD report described his experience in the fellowship:
“I’ve seen the path I was on,” he said. “[The ONS] pulled me from a lot of things. They saved my life. They are committed to me even when I am not. To think about how I was… almost brings a tear to my eye. Now I have a better relationship with family.”
In terms of whether or not the ONS model can be applied to larger cities with high levels of gun violence, Boggan is hopeful.
“I believe this can work elsewhere, but it is predicated on involvement by the community, law enforcement and others,” Boggan says. “Imagine you could identify the 50 biggest firearms offenders in a city like Baltimore or Chicago and you put this fellowship infrastructure in place and after 18 months your data says that 94% are alive, 84% have not been injured by a firearm, and 79% are not suspected of a firearm crime.”
“That impact that those 50 have on a group can be very powerful and healthy,” he said, “as it has been here.”
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