The Biden Administration plans to address rising gun violence through support for community-oriented intervention and street outreach programs such as violence interrupters, as well as hospital-based programs that can offer residents of at-risk communities the services they need to stabilize their lives, and to stay safe, says a senior White House official.
While some of the programs have achieved success, their longevity and effectiveness depend on the kind of continual funding that most lack, Chiraag Bains, Special Assistant to President Joe Biden on Criminal Justice, told a recent webinar.
“That change starts with the president’s call for $5.2 billion in new funding over eight years for community violence intervention programs through the American jobs plan and through his discretionary budget request,” said Bains.
“This is the level of funding we need to meet the scale of violence in the immediate term.”
Bains was speaking at an online conference organized last week by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ ) to discuss the council’s most recently released impact report on COVID-19 and Crime.
He was joined at the webinar by Thomas Abt, Director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCJ); Shani Buggs, Assistant Professor with the Violence Prevention Research Program at University of California Davis; and Libby Schaaf, Oakland City Mayor since 2015.
An NCCJ report released last week revealed that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and states across the country have experienced a dramatic spike in both violent crime and homicides that have targeted the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in America.
But while these recent increases are cause for significant concern, there is no need to panic, Abt told the session.
“It’s important to note that despite these significant increases, overall rates of homicide and violent crime are nowhere near the highs they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s nationally,” Abt said, adding that property and drug crime rates for both last quarter and last year fell significantly.
A senior fellow for the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) and a national expert on urban violence reduction, Abt said the key challenges facing the country were “improving public safety while simultaneously improving confidence in the criminal justice system.”
All the speakers agreed that the most effective strategies to stem the tide of violence and death are centered at multiple levels, and braid together immediate and meaningful community, systemic, and financial support and stability for individuals at the highest risk of violence involvement.
Buggs pointed out that, especially in the most marginalized communities, that violence is often gun-related.
“Gun violence is an epidemic, it’s a public health issue and needs to be approached as such,” said Buggs.
“And what we know about community gun violence is that it is driven by structural and systemic impediments to communities stability, health and wellbeing, and that the violence we see today is the result of decades of policies and practices that have led to population level and community level disinvestment and neglect.”
According to the CCJ report, based on data collected from police reports in 24 cities, the gun assault rate was 22 percent higher during the first quarter of 2021 than in the first quarter of 2020. There were 1,407 more gun assaults in the first quarter of 2021 than occurred during the same period the year before.
Buggs stresses that these numbers affect African-American men the most.
“Gun homicide is a leading cause of death for black males under the age of 44, and it has been the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 34 since the 1980s,” said Buggs.
“It’s important to understand that history, so we can understand how we undo structural harms and stop prioritizing strategies that locate the sources of these structural and social problems within individuals rather than within the community conditions in which they live.”
Bains said the White House intends to reinforce programs that “provide wraparound services like job training, behavioral therapies, peer support and mentorship financial assistance and direct conflict mediation, some of which have been shown to reduce violence by as much as 60 percent, because they target the individuals who are most likely to commit or be victimized by violence.
“And they leverage trusted messengers to reach those individuals,”.
The Biden-Harris administration has also taken action to free up funds from existing funding streams and make changes to 26 different grant programs and technical assistance provision programs across five different agencies to ensure that they are open to applicants who want to employ community violence intervention strategies.
Moreover, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is organizing a webinar and toolkit to educate states on how they can use Medicaid to reimburse certain community violence intervention programs, like Hospital-Based Violence Interventions.
And the administration has put out guidance from the Treasury Department and the Education Department, to let jurisdictions know that American rescue plan funds can be used to support community violence intervention.
“That’s $350 billion in state, local, and tribal aid, as well as another $122 billion to school districts, that is already out the door,” said Bains.
“And the rest is coming.”
In addition to his support for increased funding and education on violence intervention, Biden has also called on the Senate to pass House-passed legislation that would close the loopholes in the gun background check system, including one bill that will require background checks for all gun sales and another that would close the so called Charleston loophole, which allows gun sales to go through after three days, even if a background check is still ongoing.
The president also requested that Congress repeal a measure that frees gun manufacturers from liability for gun deaths, and to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is developing model red flag legislation, producing an annual report on gun trafficking for the first time in years, and also issuing new rules to stop the proliferation of ghost guns and better regulate stabilizing braces that make firearms more lethal.
“The problem we see is not a problem that widespread suppression, widespread arrest and incarceration, and more guns will fix,” said Buggs.
“We need immediate short term and long term actions to sustainably decrease violence and existing and emerging science, and the expertise of communities most impacted by gun violence, supports this.”
Mayor Libby Schaaf pointed to the success of Oakland’s Ceasefire program, a data-driven violence-reduction strategy coordinating law enforcement, social services, and the community, as an example of the kind of results that efforts like these can achieve.
“Ceasefire uses the methods and strategies of disease control that we’ve all become very familiar with over this last year,” said Schaaf.
“That’s detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms.”
“By 2019, not only had we cut gun violence in half and sustained those reductions, but we were out of even the top 10 most violent cities in the country,” said Schaaf.
In fact, according to the Dallas News, as a result of the Ceasefire program, gun-related homicides and injuries decreased by 49 percent from 2012 to 2018. And by the end of March 2020, Oakland had a 40 percent year-to-date decline in homicides.
“Ceasefire is a strategy that was demanded by our community, it came from the community voice, and it’s probably one of the most evidence-based strategies in the country,” said Schaaf.
“And after asking people to put down their guns, we offer them relationship based social services with life coaches that curate the offering of job training, housing supports, financial supports, whatever that individual and their family needs.”
However, Schaaf also acknowledged that Ceasefire is far from foolproof. Despite its success, Oakland was not spared from the national spike in gun violence as pandemic lockdown rules made it extremely difficult to utilize the programs strategies and prevent further violence, she said.
The protests over police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd also revealed just how dependent programs like these are on the legitimacy of law enforcement to function when their warnings and services fail to work, the mayor added.
“Programs like these depend on procedural justice training and on really trying to heal and create a relationship of trust between police and communities,” said Schaaf.
“We all have to acknowledge how that legitimacy was eviscerated by the brutal police murder of George Floyd.”
As a result, she reports, homicides and shootings have increased by 109 percent. Of the 24 cities that reported homicide rates for the CCJ report, only three of them reported either no change or decreases.
And as the country slowly opens back up, these programs, and the communities they seek to help, will require even more of the funding and systemic support that the researchers and experts at CCJ continue to recommend and push for if they are to continue to change the course on gun violence in America, and save and improve lives, Abt said.
“These various evidence-based strategies that are not currently funded enough but are doing some work all around the country were really brought to a standstill and rendered nearly impossible by COVID-19,” said Thomas Abt.
“And this is happening in cities all across the country.”
Isidoro Rodriguez is editor of TCR’s Justice Digest, and a frequent writer on policing issues.