New Program For High-Risk Juveniles


Richmond California has been running an experimental anti-crime program for nine years that defies the traditional responses to crime and may offer a creative way to save a young person from a life in the criminal justice system before it’s too late. The program pays high-risk youth to stay away from crime. That’s right, young people get paid to stay out of trouble. And the carrot might just work better than the stick.

The program, Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), is a public-private partnership administered under the auspices of the City of Richmond. The program employs street outreach staff to identify young people most likely to be involved in gun violence. Those so identified are typically unresponsive to “official” help and guidance. So the program offers credible, customized and responsive opportunities to these individuals as a desirable alternative to a life of crime.

Using crime statistics and other available data, a team of “neighborhood change agents,” most of them former convicts, comb the neighborhoods in search for the 50 most high risk youths at any given time. The identified youths are offered a spot in the program that includes anywhere from $300-$1000 a month to turn their lives around. This stipend, which can last anywhere from 9 to 18 months, is a way of showing commitment to the young person and demonstrates a belief in the young person’s potential. In return, the young person, who is called a “fellow” in the program, commits to working with ONS staff to create a “life map” of personal and professional goals.

The program provides concrete guidance, giving the participating fellow the skills and knowledge to step out of the career criminal path on into a career path that involves legal ways of making money. With the help of ONS staff, the fellow designs a “life map.” The first step often involves helping the the fellow get a driver’s license or a GED. The fellow must check in with ONS staff on a daily basis and demonstrate progress towards reaching the goals identified in the life map.

Critics of the program argue that the endemic violence won’t be stopped by “paying” criminals. However, the program has proved quite the success. Since the program started in 2007, nearly all of the fellows are still alive. That might seem like an odd measure but these youths were particularly identified as very likely, if not sure bets, candidates for gun violence. Furthermore, the “pay” is the carrot that motivates the normally reluctant young person to stay engaged with the program. The money paid to the fellows comes not only from public funds but also from private donors and cumulatively is far less than what it costs to run individuals through the criminal justice system and prison.

Richmond’s per-capital homicide rate has trended downward since the program began. The National Council on Crime & Delinquency credits ONS as a contributing factor in this downward trend. The bigger picture has been compared to fighting an infectious disease. Crime is usually treated by quarantining criminals in prison. The ONS program is seen as an inoculation against crime. Over the course of time, if you inoculate the carriers of violence, you can protect the entire community.

Even though the program has been in operation since 2007, it is still too soon to know if this approach is the better approach. But the Council of the District of Columbia is looking towards the Richmond program as a model for a similar program to abate the rising violence in that city. Perhaps other jurisdictions will institute similar programs and the future will tell which approach better addresses youth violence: The Carrot or the Stick.

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