The Town That Pays Criminals to Cut it Out

Richmond, California is just a few miles north of San Francisco. It’s home to just over 100,000 people, making it a reasonably-sized city in its own right. And, as of 2010, it had a dubious claim to fame — it was one of the ten most dangerous cities in the country, despite not being a household name.

But that was then. Today, things are much better. While Richmond still has a lot of violent crime, you won’t see it on lists like that anymore — that’s because, over the past decade or so, the crime rate has plummetted by nearly 50%. (Scroll down on that link.)

A large percentage of the credit for that goes to the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety. The ONS, per its website “is responsible for building partnerships and strategies that produce sustained reductions in firearm assaults and related retaliation and deaths in Richmond.” While not directly affiliated with the city’s police department, the ONS has a similar goal — end the violence. That was easier said than done, though; traditional methods (i.e. jail time for committing crimes) didn’t seem to have a big impact. And crazy, out-of-the-box ideas are rarely popular with voters and community leaders.

But when a teenager became the victim of a brutal murder in 2006, that calculus changed — townspeople were ready to try something new, even if it seemed outlandish. Enter a man named DeVone Boggan. In 2007, Boggan, with the blessing and support of city leadership, created ONS as a way find a viable alternative. What they came up with was a combination of math, counseling, and cash.

Step one was to find the epicenter of the criminal activity. And it turned out to be a pretty small one. As Al Jazeera reported, “during a meeting with law enforcement, Boggan was stunned to learn that city officials believed 70 percent of the 45 homicides and 200-plus firearm assaults in 2009 were committed by just 17 people.” As it turned out, arresting those 17 people wasn’t an option anyway; as CNN reported, they were “often teenage boys suspected of violent crimes but whom authorities [didnt’t] have enough evidence to charge criminally.” So Boggan decided to address those 17 people and a few others a different way: he created a privately-funded mentor program.

The first-ever ONS class constituted 20 people and lasted a total of 18 months. The first six months were to help the mentees figure out a positive path for their lives and assist them in finding jobs. That’s nothing special, but ONS went a step further — a large step further. After six months, if the criminals-turned-students stayed on the straight and narrow, the city paid them a monthly stipend of $1,000. Or as Mother Jones put it: “[Richmond] identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble.” In response to criticism, Boggan pointed out two things that were hard to argue with: first, the $1,000 a month stipend was cheaper than the cost of incarcerating the same teens and young adults; and second, nothing else was working anyway.

The city rolled the dice on Boggan’s plan and made some other changes as well — more funding for the local police department and a shift to community policing — and the results are good. In 2007, guns claimed the lives of 45 people in Richmond; seven years later, with the ONS system in full effect, that number fell to 11. Per one study on the program, via another Mother Jones report, “94 percent of fellows are still alive” and “79 percent have not been arrested or charged with gun-related offenses” since entering the program. And to make the system even stronger, former ONS mentees are now often selected as ONS mentors, giving them on-going employment while also giving each subsequent class some first-hand evidence that, yes, you really can give up the life of crime.

To date, there’s no evidence of young Richmond kids entering into a life of crime in order to qualify for the program, so that’s good. Also good: due to the successes in Richmond, other cities are considering a similar program. Per the above-linked CNN piece, Sacremento, Toledo, and Washington are all thinking about implementing their own Richmond-model solution.

Bonus fact: Politically, Richmond, California is a bit of an odd duck in another way, too. From 2007 to 2015, the mayor of Richmond was Gayle McLaughlin, a member of the Green Party — making Richmond the largest city in the U.S. thus far with a mayor from that party.

From the Archives: Orange Balls of Justice: Another way to reduce crime.