The newest hot thing in crime reduction is actually an old idea that has been tried again and again, at staggering cost, with little objective evaluation of the results.  It is now being re-packaged as an initiative called National Network for Safe Communities, and several large cities are already signing on.  The idea is to “reach out” to the most prolific criminals, the ones who control drug dealing and gang activities, and try to engage them in dialogue to get them to stop dealing, robbing, and shooting — before threatening them with prison.

To put it another way, cities overwhelmed by crime will hand over yet another get-out-of-jail-free card to offenders who already, in reality, have fistfuls of them.  Cities will reinforce the status and egos of the worst offenders by engaging them in “dialogue”  (predictably, some of these offenders will simply use their new status to grow their criminal enterprise, like this M-13 gang member/executive director of Homies Unidos, a “nationally recognized anti-gang group”).  Cities will create and subsidize larger numbers of expensive, redundant, slush-fund “job outreach programs” and “youth intervention initiatives” and “community summits” and “lock-downs service provision weekends” — more, that is, than even exist now.

This is an act of desperation. Every decade or so, this idea gets the green light, or at least a new name.  Then a whole lot of money gets pumped into completely unaccountable non-profits.  Next, unsurprisingly, the politically-connected activists who draw their salaries from said non-profits declare success; newspaper reporters pen feel-good stories (before, occasionally, moving on to exposés); politicians declare victory; then academicians with ties to the politicians and activists go in and create positive “evaluations” of the programs they have been asked to evaluate positively (nobody ever reports failure: it simply is not done).

I used to (unwillingly) play this racket, so I know how it works.

How do you justify shelling out millions of dollars to essentially non-existent “jobs programs”?  First and foremost, you set your “program goals” ridiculously low.  Here is an example from yesterday’s news: according to the Boston Globe, the Boston Foundation recently set out to fund-raise 26 million dollars to institute a safe communities gang intervention program.  26 million dollars, yet their “goal” was to have “13 new street workers in targeted neighborhoods by March” and eventually 25, as well as paying existing non-profits to provide vague and redundant services like “job training” and “family support.”

Wow.  Those are some good-paying community outreach jobs.

Of course, months and millions of dollars later, they have not even succeeded in the paltry goal of getting 13 workers on the ground.  Instead, the “coalition” of community groups, all expecting fat handouts, has dissolved into predictable warfare over who gets what.  Rather than reducing gang conflict, it might be said that the program has succeeded in fomenting more of it.  Nonetheless, at the end of five years, so long as they manage to produce 25 people who will claim to have been doing “gang outreach,” then they will meet their “program goals.”

In my painfully vast experience of performing community outreach, I have learned a couple of hard and fast rules:

  • The most effective community workers are the ones who get paid the least and have the lowest profile in “coalition” boondoggles — because they choose to spend their time actually helping people, not lining their pockets.
  • Beware all expenditures on laptops, Blackberries, cell phones, computer software, car rentals, print materials and tee-shirts with logos: these materials are inevitably “provided” at ten or twenty times the actual cost through “vendors” who often turn out the be married to politicians or just friends of the mayor.  The electronics will inevitably disappear.
  • With the exception of Job Corps, which addresses the needs of late-adolescent foster care children in residential settings, and Goodwill, which is an amazing organization, “job training” is largely a mythical creature.  I have never seen a job training program (besides Job Corps and Goodwill) in Atlanta that was not essentially fake.  You get a bunch of computers (see vendors, above), stick them in a church basement (paying the politically-connected minister for “rent”), and then pay a couple of kids or homeless guys to put on a show for the academician who shows up to evaluate the program (who also gets paid).
  • A very substantial proportion of any outreach grant gets spent on pricey conferences where activists (who are getting paid to attend) meet with other activists (who are getting paid to attend) in nice hotels and eat nice meals (that are paid for) while pretending to exchange ideas and information.  Sometimes, these banquets and hotel events don’t have any purpose beyond celebrating or congratulating the program participants and the providers.  In both cases, expensive silk-screened tee-shirts and caps and bags and other gimmies must be manufactured to commemorate the event (at ten to twenty times the actual cost, see above).
  • The less likely the idea, the more likely it is to be endorsed by someone.  The less successful the outcome, the more successful the next grant application cycle will be, because the “demonstrable need” will have risen.  Funding for failure is the formula; funding for fantastical failure, the gold standard.  Success in Boston is being measured by the fact that someone managed to get a handful of ex-con “outreach” workers onto the streets with a mere 8.8 million dollars.  They did decide against spending $50,000 to play laser tag with gun felons.  I think.

Underlying this latest round of “gang leader outreach” programs is a solid criminological insight: small numbers of youths are responsible for the majority of urban crime.  David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay, designed the “persuasion-based” policies of Safe Communities after his research detailed these concentrations of crime.

So why not move into high-crime areas and build strong, comprehensive cases against these prolific offenders, instead of “reaching out” to them and essentially excusing their latest crimes?  When I look at a program like Safe Communities, I see failure in the courts.  It has simply become too difficult to put even the worst, most violent criminals away.  Community leaders, negotiating with their hands tied behind their backs, are forced to try to break bread with offenders instead, especially in the current anti-incarceration regime.

Then there’s the care and feeding of the “outreach machine,” which can derail even the most promising and well-intentioned intervention program.  Every city has one, a slick, politically-connected, vocal, and corrupt cabal that makes their living off a steady flow of block grants and foundation money and community development funds.  Cut off their money, and you will find yourself on the receiving end of protests staged by people who figured out a long time ago that paying a few homeless guys to hold up signs and chant slogans for the 5:00 news is a great way to make a fast dime.

It takes considerable political courage to stand up to this racket.  Nevertheless, reality eventually intrudes.  A couple of years, a bunch of scandals, millions of dollars, and a few avoidable deaths later, expect cities to quietly abandon these programs again.

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