Building a New Vision of Public Safety
Leaders at all levels of government must avoid responding to the rise in crime with policies that have been tried in the past and failed, like expanding the use of pretrial detention or following unnecessarily punitive sentencing practices. There is scant evidence that these initiatives would succeed. And research has consistently shown that long prison sentences, for example, may be counterproductive and that the collateral consequences of incarceration can be disastrous.
That makes it especially important for policymakers to understand the availability of, and strong support for, alternative strategies for reducing crime and violence in both the short and long term. This section concludes our analysis by reviewing the evidence for some promising solutions. It is not an exhaustive list. Rather, it focuses on two of the serious public safety challenges of our time.
Reduce Gun Violence
America’s uniquely destructive relationship with guns accelerates violence of all types, from gang killings to — as painfully illustrated by recent events — school shootings and racial terrorism against Black and Asian people. A decades-long campaign of deregulation has made gun carrying far more common, while making it harder to study, much less interdict or deter, the flow of firearms.
Unfortunately, in a recent decision, the Supreme Court further undermined the ability of states to regulate the carrying of guns within their borders, jeopardizing public safety and underscoring the need for local solutions in addition to state and federal regulation.
Despite this ruling, policymakers must look for ways to both stem the illegal trade of guns and limit the legal transfer of guns to people who pose a danger to themselves and others. For example, some states have enacted laws limiting gun purchases to one per month. When implemented in Virginia, the policy appeared to reduce gun trafficking out of the state. States could also consider banning the sale of assault weapons to young people or enacting “red flag” laws, which provide a civil procedure for confiscating dangerous weapons from someone believed to pose a public safety threat.
Local efforts will make a difference, but identifying smart, scalable solutions may prove challenging. Some jurisdictions have pursued gun buyback programs. In New York, for example, prosecutors collaborate with police and local institutions, including churches, to trade prepaid gift cards for firearms, no questions asked. Yet these programs only serve as a brake on the millions of guns sold in the United States in any given year. Their effects on gun violence appear to be minimal (although they may promote other community goals). As a result, they are no substitute for broader, more concerted action.
Policymakers should also consider the promise of community violence intervention initiatives — programs that operate at the neighborhood level, are run by people with experience in those communities, and work directly with high-risk individuals to steer them away from violence. These programs have begun to attract attention from policymakers and need sustained support from partners in government to succeed.
CVIs can take many forms and work best when tailored to the needs of their communities. Some follow the Cure Violence model, in which outreach workers drawn from the community “interrupt” and de-escalate potentially violent encounters. Others focus on providing trauma counseling or economic support. READI Chicago, for example, addresses the specific needs of neighborhoods impacted by violence in Chicago by identifying people at a high risk of violence and offering them paid employment opportunities, support services, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
A growing body of evidence supports this work. New York’s Cure Violence programs, for instance, have reduced gun violence injuries in two high-risk neighborhoods. And READI, which works with the people at greatest risk of becoming involved in violence, may have reduced shooting and homicide arrests — though researchers could not state that conclusion with the preferred degree of statistical confidence and, therefore, recommended caution when interpreting their findings. Follow-up studies may help identify ways to improve the program.
To be sure, CVIs can be difficult to implement and even harder to replicate. Leaders in the field emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A CVI that successfully reduces violence in one jurisdiction may fail in another for any number of reasons, including a simple mismatch between its programming and the community’s needs. Buy-in from local government and other criminal justice stakeholders is also vital, as is stable long-term funding. Aside from implementation challenges, this high variability makes CVIs vulnerable to criticism.
Such criticism should not deter innovation at a time when creative solutions are desperately needed. Thankfully, support for CVIs appears to be growing at all levels of government. Policymakers should aim to provide stable rather than one-off funding so organizations can plan their budgets around it. Local governments should also explore how they can be an effective partner to CVIs.
Reinvest in Communities and Social Services
Saving lives now must be the priority, but it would be a mistake for policymakers to overlook solutions that address the broader, ongoing social and economic needs of poor communities and communities of color — especially as these are the same communities that bore the brunt of recent increases in violence and have struggled with safety for years. Reinvestment efforts aimed at building healthy, resilient communities may not yield immediate results. But they are critical to building safety in the long term.
At the state and national policy level, social programs designed to cut poverty can be part of this solution, as they have been proven to reduce crime and incarceration. Studies show that Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health insurance for lower-income people, reduced arrest rates, as well as recidivism among people who had been to prison multiple times. (By contrast, restricting benefits such as disability income appears to have increased crime and incarceration.) And pandemic-era social policies, like the Child Tax Credit expansion, have only served to underscore the harmful consequences of poverty and the ability of social spending to reduce it. Policymakers can build on this strong foundation of research — and may, in the process, help undo some of the socioeconomic damage done by mass incarceration.
Addressing the deep structural problems that make some communities more susceptible to violence is a generational project. No one solution will roll back decades of disinvestment. However, some initiatives may be undertaken now to start the process. For example, summer youth employment programs (SYEPs) have been shown to reduce crime, whether by providing much-needed income or creating structure and mentorship for youth during their time away from school. Generally funded by city governments in partnership with local businesses, SYEPs provide young people with paid jobs in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.
Versions of these programs can be found in at least 27 of the 30 largest cities. However, SYEPs rarely serve all those who could benefit from them. The programs have also faced difficulties during the pandemic. In Boston, for example, a limited number of available jobs were offered through a lottery; only 28 percent of the over 4,200 young people looking to secure a position did so.
Increased funding for these and similar programs should be a part of any elected official’s agenda. Some cities have already taken steps to shore up local SYEPs. New York City announced earlier this year that it was expanding the city’s program from 75,000 to 90,000 participants. SYEPs can provide young people jobs, structure, and financial support at a difficult time while building safer communities.
Lastly, research also shows that affordable health care reduces the likelihood that people will enter the criminal justice system. It also reduces recidivism. Recent studies have found that access to treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues appears to decrease the rates of both violent and property crimes. Of course, treatment services — and especially mental health care — must also be affordable to be effective. Cost barriers may be part of the reason for the persistent gap between mental health needs and care. The problem is especially acute for people returning to their communities from incarceration, as they are likely to leave prison with at least one chronic health condition. These inequities must be addressed, at a minimum through programs and policies that link people leaving prison with health care benefits.