Opinion To fuel public safety reform, cities must build their civic muscles

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Elizabeth Glazer is the former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. She previously was a federal prosecutor in New York, heading the organized crime and violent gangs units, and is a member of the Executive Session of the Square One Project.

Early last summer, New York City confronted several crises: a rapidly spreading virus, a yawning budget deficit and levels of gun violence not experienced in more than a decade. Scrambling to respond, the city released its budget for the next fiscal year, gutting one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent violence and incarceration — the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

That response reflected the expensive monopoly the criminal justice system holds over public safety. Cutting summer employment amid rising violence and community hardship missed the compelling evidence that a strong social fabric — composed of a million strands, including employment — creates thriving neighborhoods at a lower human and fiscal cost than our current system.

New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program provides paid summer jobs to youths ages 14 to 24, mostly youths of color who come from families with incomes about half the national average. The program cut incarceration among participants 18 and older by more than half and reduced violent deaths by about 18 percent. If funded to operate at scale, reaching every eligible young person, the program would also yield a net savings of $490 million. And because youths who do not touch the criminal justice system are less likely to be entangled in it later in life, summer youth employment can progressively shrink the size of the justice apparatus.

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Although many have come to think of the criminal justice system as the singular antidote to crime, strong evidence shows that access to civic goods, such as superior education, decent jobs, housing and well-maintained public spaces — the common look of safety in wealthier neighborhoods — are highly effective at ensuring a durable peace. But we have never invested at scale in this approach.

The costs of this failure are highest in neighborhoods burdened by multiple social ills. Covid-19 has distilled what we have known for a long time: Violence incubates where poverty and disadvantage are concentrated. In New York City, the 10 neighborhoods that have led the city in shootings for decades, home predominantly to Black and Brown New Yorkers, are also those suffering from other forms of social distress, from high poverty and infant mortality to disproportionate covid-19 fatalities.

This is a moment for cities to reset. Staring down a budget emergency and a justice-system crisis of legitimacy, cities have an opportunity to rewrite the playbook. City governments have the capacity to execute locally on a scale no one else can. Their actions have exponential effects because distress is interwoven, so solving for one issue has an effect on many.

To help neighborhoods, city governments must organize civic resources — including, but not limited to, the police and the criminal justice system. Those resources must all be deployed in as nimble and organized a way as police are now. In this new paradigm, police and the justice system should still play a role, though an ever-shrinking one, as one of many services to better the lives of residents. To exercise this newly organized civic muscle wisely, cities should do two things.

First, they must craft budgets that invest in many sources of safety and beyond policing. This means setting goals in struggling neighborhoods that measurably increase well-being — such as universal summer employment connected to opportunities for full employment.

Second, a single person of rank and responsibility, such as a deputy mayor, must identify and overseethe whole spectrum of safety-producing strategies. That person must be empowered to fuse city agencies — parks, sanitation, police and others — with paid community organizations to work toward the common and measurable goal of building a thriving city.

Without both of these things — a budget oriented toward building strong neighborhoods, and an empowered coordinator to make it happen — cities won’t set themselves up for success. Without the authority that comes from allocating budgets, there is no central supervising function to make the day-to-day policy choices and to pressure test every dollar so each investment brings the most safety at the lowest cost. And simply increasing funds without an empowered coordinator results in the system we have now: With every agency and nonprofit vying for resources, the result is lopsided budgets that reflect the political vagaries of the moment.

As a nation and in cities, it is time to invest in a strong, coordinated civic service delivery system that works with a regular, organized community presence. That is the way to define and deliver public safety and ignite a virtuous cycle of well-being.