SF is ‘paying criminals not to shoot.’ Here’s what the program is actually about

Homicides cost taxpayers millions; investing a fraction in outreach saves lives, money

By David Muhammad

In the past week, media outlets throughout the Bay Area and around the country reported that San Francisco plans to give people $300 per month not to shoot each other.

The click bait caught national attention and sparked wide debate following an article in The Examiner that was sub-headlined with the $300 amount. The problem is such headlining distorts what the program is about.

No one in San Francisco proposed such a program. “Paying criminals not to shoot” is a catchy headline, but it is an extraordinarily inaccurate description of the actual program being developed.

Here is the more complex truth.

Through a grant from the California Violence Intervention Program, the city of San Francisco created the RISE program — Risk, Intervention, Support, and Enforcement. Through a data-driven process, RISE identifies a small number of people in The City who are at very high risk of being involved in gun violence. Those individuals are referred to outreach workers who locate and engage them and then connect them with an intensive life coach. Life coaches are known as “credible messengers,” people with similar lived experience as the clients, but who have turned their life around and now serve as examples and mentors.

The goal is to connect the life coaches with people who are at the very highest risk of gun violence, those who without intervention may become a victim or suspect in a shooting in the next six months. A detailed data analysis of this population in San Francisco revealed that these are primarily young Black men in their 20s, who have significant criminal justice involvement, are a part of some neighborhood clique or group and are connected in some way to a recent shooting.

Incentives are nothing new in community-based organizations, corporations or government. And the small cost of an incentive far outweighs the extreme expense of the criminal justice system. In California, the annual cost of each inmate is $80,000. An evaluation of Oakland’s Life Coaching program, which uses modest incentives, showed it led to reduced rates of recidivism, therefore saving taxpayers much more than it costs.

There are a handful of community-based organizations in San Francisco that have great experience conducting street outreach and providing support to this population, especially the Street Violence Intervention Program. SVIP, which began as a city government program and has grown into an initiative of a large local nonprofit organization, received half of The City’s CalVIP grant.

A small portion of the grant funds are earmarked for financial incentives for the young adult clients that will be served by SVIP. The crux of the program is to create positive and trusting relationships between the life coach and the very high risk client. A small part of the program is providing a modest financial incentive to achieve milestones, like completing rehabilitation programs and finding a job.

My organization, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, and the California Partnership for Safe Communities, are helping to develop the RISE program. Our two organizations have worked in Oakland for the past eight years to develop and implement the effective gun violence reduction strategy there, known as Ceasefire. Oakland’s strategy has been credited for producing six consecutive years of reductions in shootings and homicides, culminating in a 50% reduction in gun violence prior to the pandemic.

The Dream Keeper Initiative, Mayor London Breed’s strategy to invest in the San Francisco Black community, has numerous programs including youth development, employment readiness, housing and the arts. The Human Rights Commission, which is overseeing Dream Keeper, is planning to provide additional funding to the RISE program to expand the number of life coaches and increase the financial incentives available for clients.

Young adults who have been identified as being at very high risk of being involved in a shooting who are then enrolled in the SVIP Life Coaching program, may become eligible to receive small monthly stipends of $200-$300 to incentivize achievement. These same clients may also be enrolled in The City’s larger Guaranteed Income program that could provide an additional $200-$300 per month.

That’s it. No paying people not to shoot. Just hard work by community service providers to reduce gun violence in neighborhoods. A similar initiative in Oakland has been effective. Oakland achieved six consecutive years of reductions in shootings and homicides, culminating in a 49% drop in gun violence. And another program in nearby Richmond has been extremely successful, yet similarly mischaracterized.

The Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety launched the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship in 2008. The program provides intensive outreach and engagement to the very small number of “shooters” in the city and develops a detailed “life map” with them and connects them to needed supports. The program also takes fellows on educational “transformative travel” trips and provides monthly stipends. After the implementation of the fellowship, gun violence declined by an amazing 70% in Richmond compared to the year prior to the creation of ONS. External, academic evaluations of the program have proven its effectiveness.

NICJR has conducted detailed analysis on the cost of violence in more than 15 cities. In California, homicides cost taxpayers $2 million each. Investing a fraction of those funds in outreach workers and life coaches, and yes even in modest stipends, can most importantly save lives, but also save millions in government spending.

David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland that supports cities to develop violence reduction programs.

Niners vs. Rams: It’s like fighting your little brother

These two teams know each other well. And they look alike, too

San Francisco needs to plan for 80,000 homes. Where will they go?

West side neighborhoods could be transformed by the ‘Housing Element’