I suspect you’d have two reactions if I told you data suggests Chicago’s violence problem might well be turned around for what it would cost to send 20,000 young people to four-year college: Show me the data. And, where can I send a check?
That’s exactly the situation violence-prevention advocates now are in. Stir a little Chicago-style political intrigue into the mix—is former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tiptoeing toward a race for mayor?—and you have the elements of a telling tale about our city’s future.
The backdrop, of course, is that Chicago’s long-violent past has exploded of late. We can argue about why and who’s to blame, but unless the city—not just its government, but the entirety of its institutions and people—can get a handle on things, Chicago’s ability to attract people and investment will vanish. In some ways, it already may have.
One obvious solution is to identify what is believed to be a fairly small number of people, perhaps 20,000 or a bit more, responsible for much of the gang and gun violence and surround them with help, from jobs and counseling to education and anger-management training.
“Typically, cities respond to increased gun violence with aggressive policing and more incarceration,” the University of Chicago Crime Lab summarized in one recent report. “However, an exclusively law enforcement response is costly to the very individuals, families and communities already bearing the brunt of gun violence itself.” Instead, the lab continues, an alternate strategy is to identify those at most risk, many from broken homes and themselves victims of violence at a young age, and show them another way.
Ron Huberman, then Chicago Public Schools CEO, talked about such a data-driven approach more than a decade ago when he said he’d identified 10,000 young people most at risk of deadly violence. CPS focused on other matters after Huberman left, but the idea got picked up by returning Chicagoan Duncan, himself a former Chicago schools chief. His new group, Chicago CRED, has steadily banged on foundations, City Hall and others to fund such a holistic approach.
Partnering with neighborhood groups, the CRED strategy is showing real, early signs of working. For example, the U of C Crime Lab reports that one of those partners, READI Chicago, in a randomized controlled trial, cut the number of arrests for shooting and homicide among participants by 79% compared to a peer group.
“We have some very promising data here,” READI Chicago Executive Director Eddie Bocanegra, himself a former felon, told Crain’s editorial board. “We have to solve this now, so we don’t have the same conversation in 10 years.”
The problem is scaling up, says Duncan, with such programs now serving only a small part of the need. Mayor Lori Lightfoot finally is stepping it up with a proposal to use federal funds to boost anti-violence programs by $85 million next year to $135 million, Duncan concedes. But what’s really needed to do the job, in his view, is a cool $2 billion—$400 million a year for five years.
That sounds like a lot. It is a lot. But, as I suggested above, for 20,000 people, $2 billion amounts to about $100,000 per, roughly the price of a college education at a good school. And it’s about what Lightfoot wants to spend on police next year. Asks Bocanegra, “What’s been the return on investment from the police?” Are murders or anything else down anywhere near 79%?
Adding political spice to this, Duncan’s policy chief, Susan Lee, a former top Lightfoot aide, says a recent increase in homicide clearance rates that the mayor brags about may be due not to better policing but to an increase in the share of homicides amid COVID that occur at home and thus are more easily solved. A whole barrel of spice comes from Duncan. Asked about the 2023 mayoral race, he replies, “I love policy and people. I don’t like politics. . . .I’m doing exactly what I want” at CRED.
Hmmmm. No “no” there, is there? The fight to make Chicago safe never ends. Nor does the debate about who ought to be mayor.