Op-Ed: Community investment, not punishment, is key to reducing violence


For more than four decades, our national approach to addressing crime and violence has focused on punishment.

Police forces have grown larger and more militant, prosecutors have become more aggressive, and criminal justice policies have gotten increasingly harsh. As a result, the United States has unprecedented rates of incarceration. There are almost 7 million Americans under the supervision of the criminal justice system — in jails, in prisons, on probation or on parole.

In part because violence in the United States has been falling in recent years, many Americans and a growing number of politicians now consider our prison system a tragic relic borne of misguided policy and government overreaction. Yet our public debate about crime and violence still typically starts and ends with conversations about policing and prison.


To truly reform our criminal justice system, we need to move away from the mind-set that punishment is the answer to urban violence. Indeed, there is now sufficient evidence to support an entirely new model for countering violence — one driven by investment.

The “punishment” model emerged in the late 1960s, when cities saw a rapid increase in social unrest and violent crime first begin to rise. It expanded and intensified in the 1990s, when violent crime came to be seen as a national crisis. Many major urban centers had rates of violence found only in war-torn countries. Politicians from across the political spectrum battled to appear tougher on crime than their opponents, and some of the most extreme criminal justice policies were passed, such as California’s three-strikes law.

To truly reform our criminal justice system, we need to move away from the mind-set that punishment is the answer to urban violence.

In many ways, California exemplified the punishment model. The entire country watched four officers mercilessly beat Rodney King in 1991, an incident that reflected a larger pattern of intensive, often violent policing. The sociologist Victor Rios has shown how entire cohorts of Latino and African American young men in cities such as Oakland and San Francisco were criminalized, targeted by overzealous police officers, marked as dangers to society and ensnared by a bloated justice system.

But as police departments, jails and prisons expanded throughout the 1990s, something else was happening in the streets hit hardest by violence: Residents and community leaders began to mobilize. They took public parks back from drug dealers, created safe spaces for young people and provided services to addicts and former inmates.

The late Juanita Tate, for instance, who formed Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, worked with her neighbors to build affordable housing, clean up sidewalks, ensure that alleys were no longer used for drug dealing, and train formerly incarcerated people to do jobs in the neighborhood.

Although community investment has not been part of our policy debates on violence in any real way, new research suggests that organizations such as CCSCLA — thousands of them — played a key role in bringing crime rates down. It wasn’t just policing and mass incarceration, in other words. In my research I found that in a typical city with 100,000 residents, every ten additional organizations formed to address violence and build stronger communities led to a 9% drop in the murder rate.

In recent years, rigorous evaluations of several types of community-oriented programs have shown that summer jobs programs and initiatives to clean up abandoned lots have had tremendous success in reducing violent crime. In Chicago, youth who were randomly assigned to take part in a program called Becoming a Man, which combined after-school sports programs and cognitive behavioral therapy, were half as likely as those who did not take part to be arrested for a violent crime.

The evidence provides a blueprint for a new model of urban policy: Instead of relying entirely on police departments and the criminal justice system, we should be investing in the residents and community organizations that have always had the capacity to control violence, but have never had the resources to do so in a sustainable way.


Patrick Sharkey is a professor and chair of sociology at New York University. He is the author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.”

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