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How to reduce gun crime in California? Why not pay people not to shoot each other?

A mentoring scheme set up in Richmond, shows encouraging signs of success – using a cash incentive

Dequan Wright, a cocky, charming former high school football player from Richmond, California, was only 14 when he was sentenced to a year in jail for firearms offences.

Of the 12 other boys he called close friends when he was growing up, one is dead and 10 are behind bars. He would most likely be back there too, he says, if not for the involvement of the Office of Neighbourhood Safety (ONS), an experimental mentorship programme introduced to the city several years ago in a desperate bid to stem the flow of shooting deaths.

Now 20, Wright wants to become a barber and a responsible father to his two young sons. The ONS is trying to find somewhere for him to train, and trying to keep him out of trouble. Not long ago, he recalls, he drove to the wrong part of town, apparently to provoke a showdown with some local rivals. ONS workers read his mind. “I made it to the park and they were already there. They told me I should leave,” he says. Without that intervention, “Something would probably have happened – and I probably would have been incarcerated.”

While homicide rates have fallen dramatically across the US over the past two decades, many cities and neighbourhoods still suffer from endemic urban gun violence that is easily forgotten amid the coverage of mass shootings. Richmond, a community of about 100,000  so close to wealthy San Francisco that its residents can see the skyscrapers across the Bay, is one such city.

Decades of tough policing failed to alleviate the problem, and in 2007 the authorities turned to youth mentoring consultant Devone Boggan to implement a new strategy. “People say: you have to deal with the race problem, the education problem, the employment situation, gun policy. I agree,” Boggan says. “But we didn’t have the luxury of time to deal with all those things. What makes the ONS one-of-a-kind is that it has a single, specific focus: reduce firearm-related assault and injury. The question we ask ourselves is: how do I get these young men to stop shooting today?”

With that mission in mind, Boggan and his associates use a combination of crime records, street smarts and information from the community to identify the Richmond residents most likely to engage in gun violence, and then offer them the opportunity to join the ONS Peacemaker Fellowship, an 18-month outreach programme for young men failed by the legal system or by social services. Boggan says around 80 per cent accept the invitation.

Headquartered at City Hall, the ONS operates with the co-operation but not the collaboration of Richmond police. Each of the fellows is mentored by one of six ONS case managers – five of whom are former convicted felons – who train them to avoid the conflicts that might lead to violence, and help them to create a “life plan” that includes career and family goals. The fellows are even offered the chance to travel abroad, as long as they agree to go alongside rivals who might once have been keen to kill them. Boggan has led visits to Mexico and South Africa, and they have never led to trouble.

The Peacemaker Fellowship borrows aspects of other programmes that proved successful in cities such as Boston and Chicago, but its most novel innovation has also proved to be its most controversial: it offers a cash incentive to its participants. Every two months, if they take up an internship organised by ONS, or achieve another of their stated goals, the fellows can receive a stipend of between $300 and $1,000 (£580). The city provides an operating budget for the ONS, but the stipends are funded by private donors.

Boggan says less than 50 per cent of the fellows have ever received a stipend, and of those that have, few received the full $1,000. His critics accuse him of paying criminals to behave, but the tactic might just be working. In 2009 there were 45 homicides in Richmond. In 2013 there were 16 – the lowest number since 1980. There have been just seven so far this year.

Boggan, 47, is easily identified by a houndstooth trilby that belonged to his earliest mentor, his grandfather. His father departed the family’s Michigan home when he was nine, leaving his mother in dire financial straits and young Devone resentful of male authority figures. His youngest brother was killed on the streets of Michigan, and as a teenager he was arrested for selling drugs.

If not for the intervention of two more mentors – a college track star who volunteered at a local youth club, and a 10th Grade history teacher – Boggan might have followed a darker path. Instead he ended up at Berkeley, and became a mentor himself. Those two inspirational figures believed in him, he says, “and so I rose to the occasion. That’s what we deal with here in Richmond. We give these young men something positive to aspire to.”

ONS case worker Sam Vaughn is a smart, affable 38-year-old with a basketball player’s build, who first met Boggan in 2008 after completing a 10-year sentence at San Quentin for attempted murder. Richmond has changed little since he was young, Vaughn says. “The clothing and haircuts are different but the situations are the same. I  wish somebody had been there to tug me in the right direction when I was 21. I would have responded. I was an insecure boy with man’s responsibilities and I didn’t have the capacity to deal with them in a responsible way.”

Richmond is too small to have a serious gang problem; instead, its violence tends to fit into a more personal cycle of grudges and revenge. Vaughn and his colleagues make it their business to know when a dispute is simmering, and when and where it might come to the boil. Their pool of potential fellows is modest: police believe 70 per cent of the shootings that took place in 2009 were carried out by just 17 people. Each mentor works with between 15 and 18 fellows at a time.

Homicide rates are falling faster in Richmond than nationally, though Boggan readily admits that scaling up his initiative as a model for bigger cities may be difficult. So far, there is not even any data to prove the ONS is responsible for the progress, which is why the National Council on Crime and Delinquency is conducting a three-year study of the Peacemaker Fellowship. Even if his strategy is validated by the study, Boggan refuses to claim the credit. “The fellowship is a partnership with these young men, and they are ultimately responsible for the reductions in gun violence,” he says, “because they’re the ones who made the decision to stop shooting.”