Paying criminals to not commit crime

My gut instinct is revulsion over this:

Richmond, located in the eastern region of the San Francisco Bay area has been quietly implementing a program that identifies the worst troublemakers in the community and pays them a monthly stipend to behave themselves. (snip)

The success of the city’s program which is carried out by the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) who work alongside police, was detailed in the latest episode of Chicago public radio’s, This American Life. (snip)

It was this that led Devone Boggan to establish the ONS and it was one key piece of information that caused him to implement his controversial strategy. Upon learning that 70 per cent of the homicides and firearm assaults in 2009 were directly linked to just 17 people, Boggan had an epiphany.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if we can wrap our arms around that and just engage the 17 people in a different way, that could have a significant impact on the narrative of what’s really going on in the city of Richmond,” he told Al Jazeera last year.

I have read that a handful of multiple, chronic offenders are responsible for a large share of crime in many places. Police often know who they are, but may have trouble locking them up. The theory behind “three strike and you’re out” laws that give life sentences on the third conviction for a serious crime is to get these habitual offenders off the street. And, as the prison population has grown, crime has fallen. The Left, most recently Hillary Clinton, terms this phenomenon “mass incarceration,” implying that innocent people are rounded up off the streets. The fact is that people are convicted and incarcerated one-by-one.

But the OCS program takes a different approach, a carrot, not a stick:

Boggan sent his staff out to find those men and offer them a deal. The ONS would pay them a stipend and help them with basic goals like getting a driver’s license and obtaining health care in exchange for their good behavior. The program also implemented a strong focus on conflict-resolution counseling.

Over an 18-month period, ONS participants receive anywhere from US$300 to $1,000 per month, depending on their progress following a “life map” of personal goals.

This is not a huge amount of money. In fact, it is not much of an incentive to people to commit crime, especially if there is an intrusive presence of “counselors” offering guidance and monitoring behavior. It is now claimed that the program is working:

In 2013, Richmond saw its lowest number of homicides in 33 years with a total of 16. Last year, that number dropped to a new recorded low of 11 which is a far cry from the recorded high of 62 in 1990.

While community members believe it is due to a number of factors including a steady increase in employment, they attribute a lot of the city’s reduction in crime to the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

The San Francisco Bay Area is undergoing a sustained job boom related to the high tech industry, and the spillover has hit low-income communities with job opportunities, even for low skilled workers in service industries. On the other hand, rents and property prices have also risen, especially given the difficulty of building housing owing to stringent regulations on land use and building.

It is too soon to declare the program a success. But it is the small-scale sort of program that can serve as a laboratory. I think it is worthwhile continuing it, but also closely observing it.

If implemented on a mass scale anytime soon, I have no doubt it could become a disastrous boondoggle, incentivizing crime. But it may have some promise, and a hothouse small-scale program with close supervision is the way to go in determining if carrots have any role in reducing criminality.

I think that even criminals ultimately are rational actors, and providing them a pathway out of crime is worth exploring, with a combination of incentives and disincentives.  

Hat tip: Michael Geer.