I know. It sounds totally preposterous. Paying criminals not to commit crimes.
The D.C. Council unanimously voted for this bananas-sounding plan last week.
A Hail Mary scheme to cut the increase in the crime rate in the nation’s ever-glammier capital would handpick about 50 of the city’s most violent, likely-to-regress young offenders and pay them about $9,000 annually to be good.
This sounds almost like a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel.
Did the mafia take over the D.C. Council’s brains? Because how isn’t this an extortion racket?
And is there retroactive payback for all my law-abiding years in the city? I can use $150,000 just about now. Or maybe I need to go commit a crime so I can get my government payout.
And what next? Reverse speed cameras that send you checks in the mail for going under the speed limit?
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is politically savvy enough to make it clear that she isn’t buying into the plan, which would cost nearly $5 million for four years.
She knows the optics of it are ghastly.
So, if we’re done with the har-har outrage, let’s take a closer look at the proposal.
After a long, steady drop in the crime rate over many years, the District had 162 homicides in 2015 — an alarming, 54 percent jump compared with the previous year.
When the bloodshed was peaking over the summer, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said a big part of the violence came from people fresh out of lockup.
“Multiple . . . offenders involved in homicide have previous homicide charges and are recently back in the community,” Lanier said at a news conference in August. “That’s significant, and it’s different from anything we’ve seen before.”
Reentry is something that has confounded cities for decades. Old neighborhoods and old rivals beckon, but opportunities for success do not. It’s not a new story.
So, what to do about those bad guys: Jobs? Schools?
Turns out the most successful federal program to help with jobs and education — Federal Prison Industries (FPI) — has been cut by half over the past decade, according to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. The opportunities are slim for people with records.
Meanwhile, about 6,000 federal inmates whose drug sentences were recently reduced have been released back into communities across the nation in the past few months. And with what new help to reintegrate? Not a lot.
I’ve walked through some of the steps to reentry with some ex-offenders, and I see the roadblocks. Appointments with parole officers clash with job interviews, potential employers don’t call back, one Metro breakdown and you’ve missed curfew.
In the District, about 8,000 men and women annually are returned to the city after being locked up and about half of them end up back behind bars within three years.
Watching these folks slip up and throwing them right back in jail costs taxpayers $30,000 a year for incarceration.
Every gun homicide in America costs taxpayers about $400,000.
Looking at it as a budget issue, paying someone $9,000 a year to stay out of trouble is cheap.
But this thing that the District is considering isn’t just a paycheck for being good. The Most Wanted members will only get the cash if they also go through an intensive, stay-straight program of education, counseling and job training that lasts about nine months.
It’s modeled after one in Richmond, Calif., in the shadow of San Francisco. Richmond had been among the nation’s Top 10 in homicide rates.
After that city started the pay-for-peace plan six years ago, gun-related violence plummeted.
Sure, it could be because that city also got an outside-the-box, new police chief, an openly gay man who pushed community policing beats, held up a Black Lives Matter sign and encouraged rehabilitation over jail. It could be that demographics are changing and the city followed the nationwide drop in crime.
Or it could be because the 68 people picked as Most Likely to Kill in that town were finally singled out. These guys came to the program with a “laundry list of deprivation and dysfunction: high unemployment, fragmented families, inadequate education and a heavy dose of substance abuse,” said the program’s founder, Devone E. Boggan, in a New York Times editorial.
But then someone asked more of them. They took trips to college campuses, and they were forced to make friends with rivals. For every month they attended meetings, listened to mentors, didn’t get in trouble, they got $1,000.
The cash helped pay rent and buy food. But ultimately, it was the attention to them, their futures and their success that kept those guys coming back, that kept them straight. It’s focused attention to their well-being that many never had before.
There’s no punch line. No great one-liner here. Just a lot of hard work and some success.
And even if the optics are bad, that’s got to be worth a try.
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