Americans have long held that the best way to keep residents safe is to invest in police. But the nation’s capital is now wrestling with a more controversial approach: paying criminals to stay out of trouble.
Under a measure that advanced in the D.C. Council last week, the city would pay 50 of its most troubled young residents annual stipends, perhaps $9,000 or more, to stick with programs to turn their lives around. Most participants would be those who have committed offenses involving firearms and who D.C. police think are likely to resort to gun violence again. The taxpayer-funded stipends would be paid if offenders keep up attendance with programs for behavioral health, education and job training, among others.
The unconventional approach has gained traction with council members after a year in which a 54 percent spike in homicides confounded D.C. police and instances of police misconduct across the country have renewed debate on the best ways to combat violence.
But with a poll showing that Washington residents see crime as the biggest problem facing the city, the proposed experiment is seen by many as risky and has caused a rift between the council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who continues to lobby for a more traditional, tough-on-crime response to last year’s homicide increase. She has been pressing the council ahead of a final vote next month to give law enforcement officers more powers to conduct warrantless searches of former violent offenders and their homes.
If the council gives final approval to the crime bill containing the stipend plan, it is not clear whether the mayor will fund or implement it. In her last statement on the bill, Bowser said in January that it “failed to include any provision to combat crime.” On Friday, her spokesman, Michael Czin, said that sentiment remains alive in the mayor’s office and the stipend plan is not a balanced approach to fighting crime.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the judiciary committee and a former federal prosecutor, wrote the measure and won a unanimous endorsement of it from his colleagues in an initial vote Tuesday.
McDuffie has cast his stipend plan as one prong of a campaign to force the District to begin addressing violent crime as a “public health” crisis.
“Residents ask me, ‘What are we doing about crime, about robberies, about homicides?’ This isn’t a plan to address one or two instances. This is to benefit all the residents of the District of Columbia and really change our approach to crime and crime prevention,” he said.
McDuffie’s bill would also put crisis counselors, social workers and psychologists in every emergency room across the city to begin working with crime victims in the immediate aftermath of violence. It would expand job training and community outreach programs and reform police training and oversight. In all, it would cost an estimated $25 million over the next four years.
The stipends account for a fraction of that, about $460,000 annually, plus another $1 million for a staff to monitor the participants. But it is the proposed expense that has attracted the most questions.
Officials would still have to hash out a system for selecting who should receive the stipends and how to determine what they would have to do to keep them. But McDuffie’s office has said that it envisions the money would go to people in their mid-to-late teens and that participants could be eligible for more than one year.
McDuffie based the plan heavily on a program that has been used for almost a decade in Richmond, Calif., and he says the experience that the city has had makes it “evidence-based and data driven.”
An industrial city in the San Francisco Bay area, Richmond was ranked as the nation’s sixth deadliest for gun violence in 2008 when it began the program and has since recorded a 76 percent drop in gun-related homicides.
Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have tried similar programs with mixed success over the past two decades, but Richmond’s has remained intact, in no small part because grant money — not tax dollars — pays for most of the stipends and program support.
Roughly 4 in 5 program participants have not been suspected of involvement in further gun violence since joining the program, according to Richmond officials.
Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore who studies gun violence, said the model in Richmond is intriguing because ex-convicts face immediate financial needs after release, including housing and often renewed commitments to child support, but have limited employment prospects to meet those obligations.
Webster said that no one has done a deep analysis of what has happened in Richmond and compared it to a control group of ex-convicts who were similarly at risk for repeat offenses. But he said that the District could be uniquely positioned to capitalize if it could repeat the success in Richmond.
“Even if it works in one instance or a couple, it could be worth it,” he said, referring to the price of the program compared with the social cost of a homicide and the $30,000 annual cost of incarcerating a convicted felon.
Bowser, however, appears to remain unconvinced, and in discussions with lawmakers she and her staff have argued that the District is already spending $100 million annually on job-training programs, plus an expansion of the District’s summer youth jobs programs and grants for neighborhood activities to create deterrents to youth crime.
“Mayor Bowser has pursued a balanced approach to stopping violence,” said Czin, her spokesman. “The legislation the mayor proposed balances enforcement and opportunity, and she will continue to pursue both.”