Target High-Violence Cities with Evidence-Based Strategies

Violent crime rates in the United States have fallen substantially from their peak in the early 1990s, yet the country still suffers far more homicides per capita than any other wealthy nation. In 2018, the last year for which official data is available, 16,214 people were murdered in the United States—about 44 people per day.* Urban violence accounts for more murders in the U.S. than any other form of violence. Since Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of citizens have died in terrorist attacks and mass shootings. During the same period, more than 100,000 people have perished from violence on the streets of our cities. Poor people of color living in urban communities bear the brunt of this burden. For young Latino men, homicide is the second-leading cause of death. For young black men, homicide is not only the leading cause of death, but also accounts for more fatalities than the nine other top causes combined. While the human costs of these tragedies are incalculable, the social and economic costs have been quantified, and they are staggering. Credible studies estimate that a single murder costs the nation at least $10 million in criminal justice and medical costs, lost wages and earnings, damaged and devalued property, and diminished quality of life. America’s high rate of urban gun violence is perceived to be one of the most intractable issues of our time, but 30 years of rigorous social science demonstrates that certain strategies can save lives. When implemented with fidelity, a short list of evidence-based interventions such as focused deterrence and cognitive behavioral therapy have reduced shootings and killings in dozens of cities. A new federal grant program supporting such strategies could demonstrate that urban violence is simultaneously one of the most serious and solvable social challenges facing the nation today. This proposed program would direct significant operational federal dollars to the localities most in need, building on current efforts at the U.S. Department of Justice that offer training and technical assistance. Funding would be explicitly tied to the data-driven, evidence-informed strategies that are proven to reduce violence, a balanced mix of enforcement and non-enforcement approaches.

*Most recent data available as of this report.


Congress should fund a robust new grant program, to be administered by the U.S. Department of Justice in consultation with other federal agencies, to reduce violent victimization, trauma, and incarceration in the U.S. cities that are most affected by urban violence.

Implementation Steps

  1. To ensure the grant program saves the most lives possible, funding would be reserved for the 20 cities with the most homicides in absolute numbers and the 20 cities with the highest homicide rates per capita, including large low-rate cities like New York and small high-rate cities like Gary, Indiana.
  2. While funding would be reserved for the 40 cities specified in (a) above, cities would be required to submit plans annually to receive said funding.
  3. To ensure a proper focus on evidence, city plans would be required to devote 85 percent of funding to interventions shown by credible scientific evidence* to reduce violent victimization and offending.
  4. To ensure proper strategic focus, cities would be required to specify in their plans the small number of proven-risk individuals and locations that drive the majority of violence in their jurisdictions and pledge to devote the funding toward those individuals and locations.
  5. To ensure proper balance, city plans would be required to distribute at least 50 percent of funding toward non-enforcement-oriented approaches to reducing violence among the individuals and locations identified in (a) above. To promote the development of community capacity and leadership, city plans must devote 10 percent of funding to efforts intended to either promote innovative approaches to urban violence reduction, build capacity and leadership within the communities most impacted by violence, or both.
  6. To promote development of evidence-informed approaches, city plans would be required to devote 5 percent of funding to rigorous evaluation.
  7. To ensure accountability, city awards would be adjusted upward or downward annually based on their compliance with the criteria set out in (2) above.
  8. To serve participating cities, 3 percent of all funds would be reserved to establish a network uniting federal agencies with participating cities in order to socialize evidence-informed approaches through peer-to-peer learning, and to facilitate a specialized network of technical assistance providers. One percent of such funds would be reserved for a national evaluation of the program.

*Credible scientific evidence means causal evidence as defined by “Evidence that documents a relationship between an activity, treatment, or intervention (including technology) and its intended outcomes, including measuring the direction and size of a change, and the extent to which a change may be attributed to the activity or intervention. Causal evidence depends on the use of scientific methods to rule out, to the extent possible, alternative explanations for the documented change.”

Annotated Citations

Abt, Thomas. Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets. Basic Books, 2019. Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and formerly a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former Chief of Staff to the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice, builds on existing studies and research in Bleeding Out to provide evidence-based approaches to combating violence in urban communities. Noting that a small number of individuals commit the vast majority of violence, Abt demonstrates that targeted strategies such as focused deterrence can improve community safety, reduce lives lost, and save cities millions of dollars. Abt describes crime—violent crime in particular—as “sticky,” meaning that it tends to cluster around small numbers of dangerous people, places, and behaviors. Abt uses proven best practices to show that a balance between prevention and punishment is far more effective in the long run than either option in isolation. Moreover, Abt contends that there must be trust in local criminal justice authorities in order for violence prevention plans to succeed. The book’s final chapter provides two plans, one local and one national, to reduce homicides by over 50% over the course of eight years. He estimates that an 8-year federal grant program would cost $900 million, while saving many times more than that in taxpayer and social costs. Abt reinforces the need for sustained commitment by stating that “rather than letting short-term successes or failures dictate policy choices, science supports setting a solid plan in motion and sticking with it.”

Kennedy, David M. Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. Bloomsbury USA, 2011. “Gang- and drug-related inner-city violence, with its attendant epidemic of incarceration, is the defining crime problem in our country. In some neighborhoods in America, one out of every two hundred young black men is shot to death every year, and few initiatives of government and law enforcement have made much difference. But when David Kennedy, a self-taught and then-unknown criminologist, engineered the ‘Boston Miracle’ in the mid-1990s, he pointed the way toward what few had imagined: a solution. “Don't Shoot tells the story of Kennedy's long journey. Riding with beat cops, hanging with gang members, and stoop-sitting with grandmothers, Kennedy found that all parties misunderstood each other, caught in a spiral of racialized anger and distrust. He envisioned an approach in which everyone – gang members, cops, and community members – comes together in what is essentially a huge intervention. Offenders are told that the violence must stop, that even the cops want them to stay alive and out of prison, and that even their families support swift law enforcement if the violence continues. In city after city, the same miracle has followed: violence plummets, drug markets dry up, and the relationship between the police and the community is reset.”

Braga, Anthony, et al. “Focused Deterrence Strategies and Crime Control: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Evidence.” Criminology & Public Policy, vol. 17, no. 1, 2018. Focused deterrence programs use problem-oriented policing and public health interventions to deter serious violent crime. This study reviews a series of quasi-experimental evaluations of various focused deterrence programs. “In all 12 studies in which the impacts of focused deterrence strategies on violence by gangs and criminally active groups were evaluated, researchers reported at least one statistically significant crime control impact associated with program implementation.” These studies were directed at reducing crime by street gangs, criminally active groups, drug markets, and high-risk individuals. While standard model policing (rapid response, increase in arrest rates, randomized preventative patrol) have been found to have almost no effect on appreciable crime reduction, focused deterrence strategies have shown statistical improvements in overall crime reduction. The study concludes that “these strategies generate noteworthy crime reduction impacts and should be part of a broader portfolio of crime reduction strategies available to policy makes and practitioners.”

Lipsey, Mark W., et al. “Effects of cognitive-behavioral programs for criminal offenders.” 13 Aug. 2007. Campbell Systematic Reviews, “Cognitive-behavioural therapy can prevent criminal offenders from continuing their criminal careers. However, some treatment programmes work better than others. A new Campbell review shows that a small number of factors make the difference. It is particularly important for the programmes to be stringently implemented, by well-trained providers. No significant differences were found in the effectiveness of the different types of programmes or brand names. Whether the treatment is implemented in prison or in the community has no influence on the outcome.” “The review concludes overall that there are three decisive factors that influence the effect of cognitive therapeutic treatment programmes for offenders. Namely: How well the treatment is implemented, the absence or presence of certain treatment elements, and the risk of recidivism of the offenders participating.”

Feucht, Thomas, and Tammy Holt. Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work in Criminal Justice? A New Analysis from National Institute of Justice. 2016. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) “is a class of therapeutic interventions based on a common theory about the connection between our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs—cognitions—and our behavior.” This overview of 50 CBT programs found that “[p]rograms serving juveniles or both juveniles and adults were somewhat more likely to be rated ‘effective.’ ” The particular programs that were most effective were those that focused on reentry, crime and crime prevention, and victims and victimization. Where these programs are not effective are in preventing domestic violence reoffending.