An article in Sunday’s Washington Post examined the inspiration for a plan in D.C. to pay 50 of its most violent residents stipends, possibly $1,000 a month, if they stay active in a mentorship program — and refrain from killing.
The controversial approach is modeled on an experiment in Richmond, Calif., where city politicians and the police chief call it a success. There, 84 of 88 participants over the last five years remain alive and the city has a homicide rate that, despite a recent uptick, remains half of what it was when the program began.
D.C. could be the first of a dozen major cities across the United States to try to replicate the program. But doing so will not be easy. Here are five of the reasons why:
1. As the saying goes, ‘crime doesn’t pay.’ But taxpayers would.
In Richmond, city-paid mentors have for five years been handing out checks of up to $1,000 a month to alleged gang members and suspected shooters if they continue to work toward a life without guns. The mentors say that they don’t know where the money goes and that they may not always want to know.
One participant, in fact, was receiving payments when he killed another participant in the program.
But administrators of the Richmond program have maintained broad latitude to continue handing out the payments because the money has come exclusively from private donors.
In D.C., however, roughly a half-million dollars in taxpayer money annually would go directly to the city’s most violent residents, according to a city analysis of the bill. Some critics have raised concerns about liability for the District should one of the individuals receiving money go on to commit a violent crime.
And while there is a provision in the D.C. measure to allow the program to raise private funds, as Richmond does, the donations would be funneled through a city account with checks issued by the District.
Will D.C. taxpayers go along with the program once they learn the details?
2. Government-sanctioned anonymity for the most violent.
When a participant in the Richmond program gets caught with a gun — or worse — the city-paid mentors all but disavow the participant until he runs his course through the justice system and returns to the street.
That’s because the only way to be tapped for participation in the Richmond program is for its administrators to consider a recruit an active firearm offender — sometimes for crimes in which police did not have enough evidence for an arrest.
DeVone Boggan, the founder of the Richmond program, believes acknowledging a participant’s status in the program could therefore do a participant more harm than good in the eyes of a judge, police or rival gang members.
To help shield participants’ identities, Boggan has also set up a nonprofit to dispense the stipends, leaving no publicly available record of those who received stipends.
To give participants in D.C. the same kind of anonymity, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the author of the measure, included a provision allowing the District to withhold under public records laws any documents identifying participants.
This is D.C., though, so expect that to be challenged in court.
3. Messy interactions with police are inevitable.
Last July, two mentors in Richmond say they were transporting two fellows home to keep them from retaliating for a shooting when they were pulled over by city police. Officers found an illegal gun on a fellow and handcuffed not only the participant but the mentors too.
The incident is one of several messy episodes that can arise between civilian leaders of the program and police — even when authorities say they are fully behind the program.
In D.C., the tension between police and the program could be worse.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier says she does not see a need for the program and has not seen evidence it is as effective as supporters in Richmond say it is.
4. The support of the mayor is critical
In D.C., the new mentorship program would be run by an office that does not yet exist and that would reside within the mayor’s administration.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, however, has shown little interest in the proposal approved unanimously by the D.C. Council. She has said the city should focus its resources on more traditional job-training programs, and she did not include funding for the new office in her budget proposal released last week.
McDuffie, the head of the Judiciary Committee, will likely be able to restore funding for creating the office. But it will be still be up to Bowser to help carry out setting up the office and making it a success.
If not, the program could go the way of similar — and now defunct — efforts over the past two decades in Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh. None of those paid criminals directly but tried intense outreach to the city’s most violent, often through the help of ex-convicts.
5. There’s only one DeVone Boggan.
For the controversial program to succeed in D.C., or anywhere else, it will need its own DeVone Boggan.
The founder of the Richmond program has a degree in law and career in nonprofit work but could be a motivational speaker. He has inspired loyalty from mentors, politicians and fundraisers.
And he has, according to one reviewer, figured out how to set aside questions about the morality of paying criminals and kept the objective focused pragmatically on results.
D.C. would need a director like him to see results like those in Richmond.