Intervention over Incarceration: A Limited Government Approach to Youth Violence - R Street Institute (2024)

Logan Seacrest

Resident Fellow, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Theoretical Framework
Origin of CVI
The Pareto Principle
Collective Behavior Theory
Credible Messengers
Bipartisan Consensus
Fiscal Benefits
Smaller Government
CVI Evaluation
CVI Challenges
(Un)Safe Streets
Between Two Worlds
About the Author

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Over the past two decades, community violence intervention (CVI) has emerged as an important violence prevention strategy. CVI programs rely on credible messengers to mediate disputes, conduct focused deterrence, provide service referral, and, most importantly, build genuine relationships with individuals at risk of experiencing violence. By treating violence as a public health problem, CVI programs represent a paradigm shift in protecting vulnerable communities. They remove law enforcement from the equation entirely, going beyond the familiar “limited government solution” framework to one that could be more accurately described as a “no government solution.” Policymakers and community leaders across the country need the latest information on this promising, non-law-enforcement approach to youth violence. Fortunately, in the past five years, a new generation of youth-focused pilot programs has added to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that CVI programs can help juveniles as well as adults. This paper presents evidence covering CVI’s history, theoretical framework, operating models, program evaluations, challenges, and policy implications and concludes with recommendations.

Youth violence in the United States is a significant problem, second only to car crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Nonfatal violence is even more widespread, with the rate of violent victimization for persons ages 12 to 17 more than doubling from 2021 to 2022. Traditional juvenile justice methods alone have proven insufficient to curb this devastating public safety issue. The goal of community violence intervention (CVI) is to reduce homicides and assaults through proactive, direct engagement with those most at risk of either perpetrating or being victimized by violence. Historically, CVI has been geared toward young adults, but recent initiatives have shown CVI can reduce youth violence as well. By shifting the nexus of violence prevention from the state to private individuals and organizations, CVI programs can shrink the footprint of the government and improve public safety at the same time.

Origin of CVI

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, juvenile homicides in Boston more than tripled—from 22 in 1987 to 73 in 1990. To counter this alarming trend, city officials worked with the community to develop Operation Ceasefire, a radically different approach to violence that used direct deterrence rather than investigation and punishment. Beginning in 1995, Ceasefire workers identified young people with the highest risk of gun-related violence and contacted them face-to-face. Ceasefire workers communicated an unequivocal warning: If violence continued to occur, it would be met with a swift and certain response. This group accountability model served as a powerful deterrent. Within two years of implementing Operation Ceasefire, the number of youth homicides in Boston dropped to 10, with just one during all of 1999 and 2000. Overall, the project was associated with a 63 percent reduction in Boston’s youth homicide rate and significant reductions in shots fired, calls for service, and gun-related assaults. The improvements were so surprising that the program became known as the “Boston Miracle.”

For years, criminologists struggled to explain Operation Ceasefire’s amazing results. They knew it worked, but not how or why. Then, in 1999, an epidemiologist named Gary slu*tkin developed a theoretical framework that explained Ceasefire’s success. slu*tkin spent most of his career treating infectious diseases in Africa; this field experience shaped his ideas about violence prevention. After returning home, he noticed that patterns of urban violence in Chicago resembled the spread of infectious disease he had witnessed overseas. He observed that violence moved through neighborhoods like a contagion, with a single incident leading to even more violence, the same way infected cells become nodes in a network of viral reproduction. Without a sufficiently strong socioeconomic immune system to stop transmission, certain communities continue to be plagued by violence year after year. Embedded in this insight was an aspirational vision: If violence behaves like a disease, perhaps it can be diagnosed, treated, and even cured. By targeting the individuals most at risk of causing harm or becoming victims, it may be possible to “slow the spread” within communities infected by violence.

Based on this epidemiological model of violence, slu*tkin founded an organization called Cure Violence, that works to reduce violence in three stages:

  • Diagnose the Patient: Identify individuals at the highest risk of being involved in violence and conduct personal, one-on-one outreach via credible messengers.
  • Interrupt Transmission: Use the power of personal relationships to prevent minor conflicts and petty arguments from escalating before someone is hurt or killed.
  • Boost Immunity: Mobilize local residents to change norms that perpetuate violence, provide compelling alternatives, and build resilience.

Cure Violence is centered around violence interrupters—individuals rooted in the community with the specific knowledge and independence necessary to conduct street outreach, de-escalate conflicts, halt retaliation, identify the individualized needs of youth, and provide resources to disrupt cycles of violence. Most violence interrupters work independently of law enforcement, giving them additional credibility in the communities they serve, where trust in police is often low. Unlike law enforcement, violence interrupters’ goal is primarily to save lives, not necessarily fight crime. This epidemiological approach has since become common across the CVI landscape, reducing violence by up to 70 percent in diverse communities in the United States and around the world. Independently administered, multiyear scientific evaluations in communities that deploy CVI techniques document other positive effects, including higher employment rates, better educational outcomes, and increased feelings of overall safety.

CVI programs can be broadly categorized based on either the level of law enforcement collaboration or the setting where intervention occurs. Group violence intervention programs (like the original Operation Ceasefire) involve community leaders and law enforcement working together to identify hotspots for violence, relying on both personal intervention and police enforcement to deter further bloodshed. Individuals who continue to engage in violence are subject to arrest and prosecution, which is clearly communicated up front and only used once violence occurs. This type of CVI is distinct from violence interrupter programs (such as Cure Violence), which feature much less direct law enforcement involvement. In addition, hospital-based violence intervention programs operate out of emergency departments and trauma centers to engage survivors of violence immediately after injury occurs. Staff work with victims as well as their families to prevent retaliation and facilitate their immediate recovery with trauma support, counseling, and safety planning. No matter the model, the goal is to move people away from a retributive mindset by providing them with coping mechanisms, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills.

The Pareto Principle

CVI programs are based on decades of consistent research showing that only a small group of people drive most of the killing. Typically, less than 0.5 percent of a given population engages in violent crime, but this small percentage is linked to 60 to 70 percent of shootings and homicides. This disparity is a good example of the Pareto principle, which states that for many phenomena in nature, economics, and social science, a small proportion of causes typically lead to a large proportion of effects. Murders and shootings, for instance, are heavily concentrated geographically, and therefore disproportionately affect certain populations and neighborhoods. For example, young people growing up in some Chicago neighborhoods are exposed to gun violence at rates almost 30 times higher than their peers just a few miles—or even a few blocks—away. Research on Operation Ceasefire in Boston over a 29-year period confirmed that 74 percent of serious violent incidents occurred on only 5 percent of the street blocks and intersections in the city.

If crime and violence generally concentrate in and around a small number of high-risk places, people, and behaviors, it is logical that interventions targeting these elements would have the largest effect. Indeed, a systematic review of 41 violence intervention programs found that those targeting specific at-risk youth almost always outperformed more generalized approaches that cast a wider net. For this reason, CVI programs operate via the Pareto principle, deeply embedded within specific neighborhoods, relying on hyperlocal knowledge and leadership to target the small subset of the population causing, or subject to, most of the violence. To identify participants with high potential to be affected by violence, CVI programs use both algorithmic and human methods, gathering referrals from community leaders, law enforcement, hospitals, churches, and schools.

Collective Behavior Theory

To understand why CVI is effective at reducing youth violence, we must first understand why youth violence is particularly contagious. The theory of collective behavior posits that youth violence is usually the result of threats or perceived threats, which increase group membership, enhance solidarity, and lead to cycles of attack and retaliation. Disputes between young people can turn violent quickly because they lack the maturity and impulse control necessary to manage conflict peacefully. Collective behavior explains much of youth gang activity, as any threat (real or imagined) bonds insiders together against a common enemy and dehumanizes those outside of the group, which allows members to normalize external violence. The internet has only exacerbated these forces by magnifying the virality of violence, as disputes online spill over into real world carnage. Indeed, social media functions as a powerful tool to organize and coordinate attacks, providing an easy mechanism to recruit, plan, and share intelligence on rival groups. For instance, platforms with geographic tags show where an individual is located, which can increase the chances of a lethal public confrontation. When calls for reprisal go viral, the danger is hard to contain.

Consistent, caring adults are critical for young people to thrive and flourish. However, many adults in positions of power have trouble communicating with young people involved in violence or the justice system. Often the problem is not the message—the problem is the messenger. Even the most powerful or well-crafted anti-violence message will fall flat if the recipient does not authentically identify with the person conveying it. The problem is compounded when the messenger—often a well-meaning counselor, teacher, or police officer—is a beneficiary of race, class, and educational privileges that the young person has never experienced. To make anti-violence messages more relatable, CVI programs use “credible messengers,” trusted insiders that share similar backgrounds and characteristics to at-risk youth, giving them firsthand knowledge about how to put their lives on a more positive trajectory.

Credible messengers are frequently able to motivate hard-to-reach young people where other professionals have failed by using personal stories and shared trauma to foster genuine connections and model behavioral change. They are often former gang members or individuals with a history in the criminal justice system. Credible messengers are chosen specifically based on demonstrated leadership qualities and subjected to a thorough screening process, as they serve on the front lines of urban violence, tracking youth and gang activity, responding to incidents, mediating conflicts, and even maintaining a presence at crime scenes to reduce the likelihood of retaliatory attacks. Ideally, credible messengers are able to help resolve conflicts through dialogue and outreach, without resorting to government authorities.

The unique position that credible messengers occupy enables them to act as a bridge between youth and community services, connecting clients with employment opportunities, educational resources, and healthcare. A credible messenger’s job is not only to prevent specific incidents of violence from occurring, but also to gradually shift the youth’s cultural orientation from retribution to one of compassion. In this capacity, credible messengers also serve as change agents, reorienting youths prone to seek vengeance toward pro-social activities and increasing the positive connections between young people in disadvantaged communities. This process builds social capital, repairing the networks individuals depend on to meet basic needs, modeling civil engagement and communicating the norms of reciprocity. As an important source of informal behavior regulation, low levels of social capital are associated with increased community violence. CVI programs help generate social capital by hosting trust-building events, such as candlelight vigils, cookouts, peace walks, and athletic activities. Despite the importance of community building and service provision, the most influential factor leading to long-term behavioral change is the personal relationship between the young person and credible messenger.

Intervention over Incarceration: A Limited Government Approach to Youth Violence - R Street Institute (2024)


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