Fault Lines
25 May 2018

Buying Off Murder: Is It Worth The Price?

July 7, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — This Sunday’s New York Times posted a story by Devone L. Boggan entitled To Stop Crime, Hand Over Cash.  The story details a project initiated by Richmond, California’s Office of Neighborhood Safety designed to deal with gun violence in the community.  The understandably controversial project was set up so that the City of Richmond would pay up to $1000 a month to “the city’s potentially most lethal young men” to stay out of trouble and attend meetings for up to nine months.

The average rank and file prosecutor is a natural skeptic of rehabilitative (or, in this case, pre-rehabilitative) programs.  I was a prosecutor in the early 2000s when the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was introduced to the Success Through Addiction Recovery (STAR) Program, which sought to divert offenders charged with drug offenses into a more stringent rehabilitative program.

There was a collective eye roll on the part of all of us who saw the programs as more paperwork and screening that we would be forced to do just so a defendant could avoid prison time.  Naturally, we were resistant to the idea and the phrase “Hug a Thug” might have been used a couple of times to describe the program.  Fast forward to today, and the STAR Court Program has become a highly effective and respected program that is embraced by the courts, the prosecutors and the defense as effecting meaningful change.

I bring up the STAR Court program to point out that if prosecutors were resistant to a relatively tame program such as STAR, I can only imagine what the prosecutorial reaction would be to handing over cash to “the city’s potentially most lethal young men.”  Picture something like Linda Blair’s head turning 360 degrees in The Exorcist. Prosecutors tend to gripe about their salaries.  It would be interesting to see how they would respond to government funds being diverted to individuals that they consider crooks. Hugging a thug may be one thing, but paying a thug is a whole different matter.

Boggan, however, claims that the project has been tremendously successful and notes that Richmond has experienced a 76 percent drop in homicides and a 69 percent reduction in firearm-related assaults since 2007.  That’s not a statistic that can be ignored, but is it one that could be replicated in other areas?  Should it be replicated in other areas?

According to the 2013 census, Richmond, California has a population of 107,571.  Boggan’s report says that they have approximately 150 clients in the program, which costs roughly $20,000 per client.  That’s obviously not a $20,000 cash payout for refraining to murder someone – large portions of that go to staffing the meetings with counselors and mentors, presumably.  However, if you take that program and try to start it up in Houston, New York, Los Angeles, or Detroit, one would expect costs to go up significantly.

In principle, the program seems distasteful, as well.  What’s the difference between paying “the city’s potentially most lethal young men” to not commit gun violence and paying Organized Crime a monthly fee for “protection” for your business?  Is it any different than paying Al Capone $500 a month and if he promises that my grocery store won’t mysteriously catch on fire? My credit card bill was a little higher than expected this month. Maybe I should write Boggan and tell him that I’m feeling kinda homicidal and was considering a visit?  I could use the extra cash.

While the benefit of pumping money into an economically disadvantaged area is obvious, it would seem that there are alternative and more worthy candidates for the money than the most lethal young men.

Furthermore, what’s the recourse if one of our financially-inspired former-wayward youth decides to drift back to a life of violence?  Does the city of Richmond sue him for a return of its payoff?

“Yes, we know that you are now on death row, sir, but that doesn’t change the fact that you now owe us $3,000 for breach of contract.”

Not to mention, what happens when one of the “potentially lethal young men” does backslide into murder and the City of Richmond has to acknowledge that he was one of their “clients”?  Could a prosecutor use that as evidence against him?  If so, how?

The bottom line is that most of us would acknowledge that the root of a large percentage of violent crime can be found in socioeconomic disparity.   Lifting poorer communities (and households) into a less desperate set of circumstances is a noble, yet difficult, goal.  It’s just not clear that the recipients of this particular economic stimulus package are the wisest of choices.  Similarly, if you wanted to lessen crime in Montana, you probably wouldn’t write a blank check to Ted Kaczynski. Not that he would cash it.

Boggan’s article points out a “success story” of the program, named Shyeed, who left his potentially homicidal ways behind to become a productive and well-dressed member of society.  What becomes of Shyeed when the money runs out?  Was his adherence to the law of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” solely contingent upon his monthly stipend?  Did that monthly payment really change who Shyeed was?  Or was it merely a rental payment for one of Shyeed’s potential victims so they could walk the Earth a little bit longer?

I’ve been wrong before – many, many times – but this particular program just seems insanely misdirected.  While Boggan may look at this program as an uplifting, zany social experiment that was wildly successful, I look at it more as a town that was paying off its criminals to ensure the peace.  I know that you could never sell this as a good idea to a prosecutor.  Quite frankly, I’m surprised that you could sell this idea to anybody.

Boggan ends the article by indicating that Oakland, California, a substantially larger universe of potentially lethal young men, is considering implementing a similar plan.  That may be a better test to determine whether this is a real solution or just the renting of momentary peace until the cash runs dry.  Like I said, I’ve been wrong before.

Main image via Flickr/401(K) 2012.

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  • trung nguyen
    11 July 2015 at 2:10 am - Reply

    come to richmond. i’m a native. working class guy in tech, in the bay area. Which really means i can afford to live in manhattan but can only afford to buy a house Richmond in the bay area cause its only a half million instead of a million plus.

    I grew up in richmond, i grew up with guys in those situations and neighborhoods. I’ve been to those neighborhood regularly recently. I have friend whose raising who’s family in those neighborhoods cause all he can afford is section 8 housing. once upon a time you could set your clock to the appearance of the first drug dealers in the evening. by midnight the courtyard of his apartment complex would have at least 20 drug dealers in the middle of there working hours. The last few times i have been there there were none.

    This is not to say that this program did this. There are a lot of factors in this city that could account for these large changes. however, those factors have been there before and made the city worse. what i can say is that a sea change needs to happen in the way we deal with the issues we have. Tough on crime has had 20 years to try and make and change and it has its made it worse. It time that we consider a new tack. if you have walked the streets of richmond as long as i have you’d know something has changed for the better, even when you go through the worst areas. come to richmond.