Persuading Offenders to Shape UpYesterday the Center for Crime Prevention and Control of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York made the official announcement of the launch of its National Network for Safe Communities.
In reading about this effort, first in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, and then in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker, I was particularly struck by the special type of persuasion the program uses to reduce violent crime and to remove drug markets from community streets.
David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control, had the insight some years ago that criminal offenders who had not yet perpetrated violent crimes might be deterred from continuing their illegal activities by being challenged to behave better by people with moral authority, such as family members and community leaders. At the same time, it would be impressed upon the offenders that the police had already accumulated sufficient evidence of their misdeeds to convict them in court if the illegal behavior recurred.
This second-chance approach, with attached sanctions if the second chance does not produce improvement, reminds me of an approach to dealing with recalcitrant employees that has always seemed smart to me. The basic idea is to call in an employee who has persistently failed to meet expectations and deliver this message: "You need to go home for a day and think very seriously about what you want to do. Do you want to bring your performance in your job up to the level that we expect, or do you want to look elsewhere for employment? If you are sincerely ready to do what's necessary to meet expectations, we are ready to help. If not, we have no choice but to let you go."
The process followed with criminal offenders is to ask them to attend a meeting; they are promised that the meeting is not a trap at which they will be arrested.
Those who appear at the meeting are confronted by influential figures, such as family, friends, clergy and ex-offenders, who describe the harm the offenders' activities are causing, earnestly entreat them to stop the bad-acting, and offer help with getting education, jobs, and other assistance for turning their lives around. As the New Yorker article explains, "victims and their family members [are] on hand to deliver the moral component of the message to the offenders: 'What you are doing is wrong, and we know you can do better.'"
The offenders also get a deliberately theatrical talking to from police and representatives of the criminal justice system, who present the dossiers of evidence that are ready to be used to convict them and send them to prison if they fail to take advantage of the offer of a second chance.
You can see portions of such a "call-in" meeting in the video below, which deals with use of the Kennedy approach to deter street drug-dealing in High Point NC.
Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College, argues:
David [Kennedy] has proved that when you communicate directly with offenders, tell them their actions have consequences not abstract consequences but direct, immediate ones and then offer them a way out, that it can have an enormous deterrence value.It should be noted that, according to John Seabrook, author of the New Yorker article, the social services element of Kennedy's approach has been relatively weak. I am inclined to think that this is because, as experience shows, helping those with employability problems is itself a project that requires concerted, multi-pronged effort. See, for example, this post about the "wrap-around services" the Cincinnati Works program offers to individuals facing various employability issues.
An excellent Wall Street Journal report on the High Point NC experience with using the Kennedy program is here. The maps below show the prevalence of serious crime in High Point prior to the "call-in" of drug dealers, and then about 600 days after. Colors indicate the number of crimes by census block. White indicates the fewest crimes and red the most.
For a more extensive presentation of David Kennedy's research and ideas, you can have a look at his 2008 book, Deterrence and Crime Prevention: Reconsidering the Prospect of Sanction.