Criminal justice

Violence reduction playbook

Combating violence is one of the most complex and visible challenges cities face. Policy is an important tool to curbing crime, but choosing the right strategy revolves around many questions:

What has worked in other cities? How expensive is implementation? Is a place-based approach better than a people-based approach? What stakeholder partners are needed? How well does a policy balance community safety with that community’s values?

The Metro Ideas Project created a rubric comparing eight anti-crime policies. Our violence reduction playbook reflects existing research and interviews with criminal justice experts across the U.S.

Policy Overview
Focused deterrence Focuses resources on a few individuals believed to be responsible for high levels of crime
Cure Violence Treats violence as a public health issue through a network of volunteers, mediators and city officials
Disorder policing Identifies and commits resources to high crime areas
School-based programs Uses schools and education programs to tackle root causes of violence
Prison programs Aims to curbs recidivism through prisoner education and counseling
Minimum sentencing laws Assumes that severity of punishment deters crime
Civil gang injunctions Uses civil nuisance abatements to prevent gangs from congregating in specific areas

Focused deterrence

Focused deterrence is a suite of crime reduction actions with a common goal: find the most violent offenders and stop them. Beginning with Boston’s Operation Ceasefire in the 1990s, focused deterrence strategies promote intelligence-based, responsive policing and lifelines for those affected by violence.

It utilizes police intelligence to identify the small percentage of people who commit disproportionately high levels of crime. These individuals are then brought together into call-in meetings. During a call-in, law enforcement informs offenders they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, often with judicial priority for any offense, if they do not stop violent activities. The speech is followed up by a community member asking for a stop to the violence. This method has grown over the past two decades, and it continues to lead the charge of smart policing policy.

Type Judiciary, social
District attorney Support needed to prioritize cases
Police Identify worst offenders, gather evidence, follow up with threats and community policing
Political Executive support to get community backing and budget appropriation for staff
Community Local leaders attend call-ins, aid reconciliation and provide support for rehabilitated offenders
Resources Time and space for call-ins, staff for custom notifications, dedicated director for support services
Long-term Services provided for offenders trying to straighten out. Cessation of support programs leads to relapse.
Test cities Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis and High Point, North Carolina
Efficacy Medium to highly significant results when followed. Efficacy depends on buy-in and implementation. Considered to be one of the most consistent police-based measures

Cure Violence

Cure Violence started in Chicago. Dr. Gary Slutkin realized there were similarities between violence and contagious diseases. By treating violence as a public health issue, the strategy attempts to address those at risk and treat those affected through a network of volunteers, mediators and city officials. When violence is treated in this way, they argue, it creates a societal change among the affected area and reverses an epidemic of violent crime.

Type Social, public health
District attorney NA
Police Provide team members' safety, help in organization, and alerting network of crime
Political Provides publicity, support and budget appropriations
Community Provides business support, staff members and information about potential conflicts
Resources Extensive manpower for mediations and street team involvement
Long-term Long-term support system. Shootings rose significantly in Chicago when program ceased
Test cities Chicago, Baltimore and New York City
Efficacy Apparent medium to high efficacy. 41–73% drop in shootings and killings in Chicago in implementation areas. 56% reduction in killings in Baltimore in implementation areas

Disorder policing

Disorder policing (aka hot-spot policing) uses data to identify and commit more resources to high crime areas. These efforts are directed toward reducing open crimes like drug dealing and public intoxication, as well as improving parts of high-crime areas that may be neglected — like poor street lighting, run-down buildings and abandoned vehicles.

This method can also include more aggressive enforcement measures, including vehicle searches and stop-and-frisk. The category applies to a broad spectrum of measures, but it is universally understood that best practices are based on data-driven resource allocation, neighborhood revitalization and protection for those in the neighborhood. Stop-and-frisk and other overly aggressive tactics have a history of encouraging racial profiling and police violence and are not recommended.

Type Executive
District attorney Prosecution support
Police Identify "hot spot" crime areas and add higher police presence. Crackdown on open crime and public nuisances. Report abandoned buildings and crime evidence
Political Initiation and support. Creation and funding for smart policing programs. Create teams to clean up streets, renovate or demolish abandoned buildings
Community Often alienated by constant police presence. High possibility of harassment. Responsible for calling in crimes and abandoned property. Potential positive effects of neighborhood focus
Resources Involves smarter allocation of police. Data gathering tools and staff may require additional funding. Significant investment to clean up dilapidated areas
Long-term Continued responsiveness to changes in high crime areas
Test cities Hundreds of cities in U.S.
Efficacy Modest effects. Problem-oriented approach more effective than zero-tolerance. Police harassment has the potential to alienate those who are supposed to be protected. Neighborhood clean-up efforts can be beneficial

School-based programs

School-based programs attempt to address root causes of violence before it happens. While other strategies share similar goals, school-based programs encourage positive conflict resolution skills and students to stay in school. They teach that violence is not a problem-solving tool and the value of an education.

Type Educational, psychological
District attorney NA
Police Limited involvement outside of classroom visits
Political Executive and school system to fund school programs
Community Counselors or teachers instruct in empathy training, impulse control and anger management. Guide children through positive conflict resolution. Parents involved in take home material
Resources Cost of materials and training for teachers
Long-term Continuing program to watch changes in community
Test cities Present in many U.S. schools
Efficacy Potential strong efficacy. Social competence improved, reduction in aggressive and violent behaviors. Chicago program produced 50% reduction in violent crime and 35% reduction in overall crime in participating group. Cognitive behavioral therapy also considered highly effective

Prison programs

Prison-based programs attempt to reduce the likelihood of recidivism. While numbers vary widely between studies, 30 to 60 percent of prisoners will go back to jail. Earning a GED diploma or other high school equivalency are one common tactic. Some prisons partner with community colleges for secondary degrees or provide industrial certification and vocational classes. Some prisons also offer counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Type Educational
District attorney NA
Police NA
Political Enacting educational prison programs, counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy services
Community Able to utilize educated labor force, sense of rebuilding and gaining rather than losing members to cyclical incarceration
Resources Estimated cost of education is comparatively lower than costs incurred by recidivism
Long-term NA
Test cities Widespread implementation
Efficacy Education has been proven to reduce recidivism. In a San Francisco trial, inmates who participated had 46.3% lower recidivism rates for violent crimes and spent 42.6 percent less time in custody. Cognitive behavioral therapy also considered highly effective

Minimum sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have existed in the U.S. since the 18th century. Today there is an extensive rubric of penalties for hundreds of crimes. The foundational philosophy behind minimum sentencing is deterrence theory, which assumes a consideration of potential benefits versus potential costs and the likelihood of being caught by every person who commits a crime.

Experts debate whether deterrence theory works, but it informs the thinking behind minimum sentencing. It assumes that the worse the punishment, the less likely a crime will be committed. While credited with an increase in the U.S. prison population, there has also been a large national decrease in crime since the 1980s.

Type Legislative
District attorney Not necessary, but prosecutors exercise substantial sway over sentencing
Police Not necessary. Can be used as policing tool
Political Legislature passes guidelines
Community Long-term loss of community members. Worst offenders sometimes removed for long periods
Resources Large monetary commitment to care for prisoners
Long-term None. Lack of support for recently freed inmates causes high recidivism rates
Test cities Nationwide
Efficacy Although some crime rates have dropped since implementation, it's impossible to isolate effects. Widely believed to contribute to cycle of crime and breakdown of communities

Civil gang injunctions

Civil gang injunctions originated in California in the ’80s. They are a legal tool to create a civil nuisance abatement against gangs in a prescribed area. They list gangs and gang members within a specific geographic area and prohibit them from associating with each other or committing crimes. While popular on the West Coast and in some parts of the South, they have mixed results due to the large differences in how gangs operate.

Type Judicial
District attorney Needed to draft injunction
Police Must provide records, evidence, statistics, gang member information, proven activities and define safety zone
Political Provides support for enactment
Community Mostly negative community effects. Makes minor interactions with gang member a crime. Community has potential to pressure gangs into good behavior
Resources Manpower for research
Long-term Continued gathering of evidence and tracking of gang activity
Test cities Implemented in many U.S. cities
Efficacy Some studies indicate reduced crime and frequency of 911 calls and gang activity. Others show no change in crime. Major issues are crime relocation, changing gang culture and constitutionality. Regarded by some as 1st Amendment infringement

Further reading

What Works in Reducing Community Violence

A report from the United States Agency for International Development looks at over 1,400 studies to identify what policies and strategies reduce community violence.

Crime Solutions Database

The National Institute of Justice database includes crime programs, best practices, and efficacy and evidence ratings.

About this project

The Metro Ideas Project examined eight anti-crime policies, reviewed external research and interviewed national experts for the violence reduction playbook.