Sacramento becomes latest locality to embrace controversial reward scheme for abiding the law
Faced with rising crime, a small but growing number of cities are experimenting with a controversial idea — paying the worst criminals to behave.
Next month, Sacramento, California, will become the latest city to consider such a scheme. Under the proposal by Vice Mayor Rick Jennings, taxpayers would put up $1 million over four years to target what activist DeVone Boggan told The Sacramento Bee are “the most lethal young men walking the streets.”
Boggan, who founded an anti-violence program in Richmond, California, called Advance Peace, told the newspaper that participants in the initiative would receive $9,000 over 18 months in they comply with the conditions. Although city money would support the program, funds from private donors would be used for the cash incentives.
The Richmond program, begun in 2007 when Boggan was founding director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety in the San Francisco suburb, involves 84 men. The program hires ex-cons to mentor the “fellows,” who get help obtaining driver’s licenses, General Education Development certificates and other assets that can help them escape a cycle of crime and violence.
Most controversially, the young men can also earn out-of-town vacations and monthly payments of $300 to $1,000, depending on their progress in the program. The idea has drawn strong condemnation from law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts.
“It’s, in my mind, a silly notion,” said Paul Larkin, senior legal research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “For several reasons. One, the possibilities for fraud are manifest and overwhelming. You’re paying people to do something they might not otherwise do.”
Larkin said it also sends a terrible message to law-abiding citizens.
“What does that say to the average person?” he said. “The criminal law is supposed to speak to the average person. The average person’s gonna feel like a sucker.”
Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said taxpayer-funded “very pathetic bribery” is a poor strategy for reducing the crime rate.
“It’s just an absolute abdication of the law and of the moral authority of the law, and a perfect example of defining deviance down,” she said. “It means if you want to get additional payments from the state, you should commit crimes and then say, ‘OK, now I’m going to stop committing crimes.’ I mean, you’re basically holding the state hostage.”
But progressives appear increasingly willing to give it a try. In February, the Washington, D.C., Council voted unanimously to pay $9,000 a year to 50 or so of the city’s most violent criminals at risk of reoffending — if they stay out of trouble and complete a nine-month program of education, counseling, and job training.
Chicago experimented with a program called Cure Violence, which was depicted in the 2011 movie “The Interrupters.” Although the city did not pay cash to participants, it did adopt some of the same elements — identifying the young men most likely to commit violent crimes and hiring former gang members to mentor them.
Former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, in an appearance Tuesday on “The Laura Ingraham Show,” heaped scorn on the concept.
“I think the White House should probably pay attention, because what we could do is identify all the known terrorists and bomb makers and then just give them $300,000 if they get their GED and then a million if they promise to stop making bombs, be terrorists, and then problem solved,” he said, his words dripping with sarcasm.
Fuhrman said the money would be better spent creating a task force of police, detectives and prosecutors to build files on the 50 most dangerous men and examine their “soft points” and their social networks.
“You get the into the system any way you can, and if they want to pull a gun on a cop, you kill ’em,” he said. “I mean, this is the way you address violence. You don’t pay somebody not to be violent, because they’re just going to be violent anyway.”
Supporters argue that Advance Peace has gotten impressive results in Richmond. The program, now a separate entity from the city, claims that Richmond enjoyed the lowest number of gun-crimes homicides last year in more than four decades — a 71 percent drop in lethal firearms assaults since 2007.
And Sacramento Assistant City Manager Arturo Sanchez tried to reassure residents at a community meeting last week that the initiative was not a pay-for-peace program.
“We are paying people to reach goals; we are not paying people not to commit crimes,” he said, according to the Sacramento Bee.
But Larkin, the Heritage scholar, said the payments open the city to potential corruption and undermine the legitimacy of law enforcement.
“There are items that are outside the box, and then there are items that are outside the box and over the cliff,” he said. “What those studies [showing crime reduction] I’m sure do not measure is the disrespect for the criminal justice system and for the political system that these programs would engender in the average person.”
Mac Donald compared the program to an initiative promoted by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that offered financial incentives to improve parenting among low-income residents.
“They had absolutely no results,” she said. “If anything, the behavior worsened.”