Hiring Criminals to Hire Criminals: Your Tax Dollars at Work — Or, Why Compassion Once Worked, and Why It Doesn’t Today

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file

I. “Every Cop is a Criminal”

Here’s a headline for you, from The Washington Post: “Cities begin to challenge a bedrock of justice: They’re paying criminals not to kill.”

Yes, you read that right: According to the Post’s Aaron C. Davis, reporting from Richmond, CA—just across the bay from San Francisco—criminals are going on the city payroll, as “fellows.” You know, like fellows in an academic setting, only not quite.

To illustrate this intriguing social phenomenon, the Post focused on the case of one 21-year-old, Lonnie Holmes, who definitely falls into the category of “at risk,” but now has a new gig: “When Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money. They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.”

Yes, the program, Operation Peacemaker Fellowship, is a real thing, run out of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety; yet perhaps we can call it, more simply, the Richmond Plan. And yes, you can be sure that the federal government, through any number of HUD and HHS programs, is helping out—so even if you don’t live in Richmond, CA, it’s your tax dollars at work. As the Post story continues, “The city has hired ex-convicts to mentor dozens of its most violent offenders and allows them to take unconventional steps if it means preventing the next homicide.”

Hiring criminals to hire criminals—what could go wrong? (As an aside, it would be interesting to know what Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders think of this idea—and perhaps, as the presidential campaign comes to California, we’ll find out.)

Yes, as part of the Richmond Plan, if you’re an at-risk youth in Richmond, you could be paid up to $1000 a month if you can convince a “mentor”—the mentors being mostly older “at risk” men—that you’ll behave. And by “behave,” the authorities don’t require any drastic curtailment of your current lifestyle, such as, say, going straight; they merely require that you pledge to commit no more murders—although, as we shall see, even that’s negotiable.

One thing is for sure: The mentor-mentee relationship in the Richmond Plan has nothing to do with the police, no sirree. As the Post explains, “The city-paid mentors operate at a distance from police. To maintain the trust of the young men they’re guiding, mentors do not inform police of what they know about crimes committed. At least twice, that may have allowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.”

Yes, the mentors, typically ex-cons themselves, are very definitely not on the side of the cops. Indeed, given the outside-the-law nature of the whole program, it’s little surprise that the Post story details a mentor coming across one of his mentees on the street—and the mentee being enveloped in “a cloud of marijuana smoke.” This incident might lead some to find a perverse “benefit” of the program, in that the subsidized youths are maybe too stoned to commit crimes, and yet evidently, the young men still have plenty of gang-banger spirit: “Mentors have coaxed inebriated teenagers threatening violence into city cars, not for a ride to jail but home to sleep it off—sometimes with loaded firearms still in their waistbands.”

Indeed, the Post adds, it’s virtually impossible to be ejected from the program, no matter what the behavior: “When the elaborate efforts at engagement fail, the mentors still pay those who pledge to improve, even when, like Holmes, they are caught with a gun, or worse—suspected of murder.”

And let’s not forget the travel benefits: “The mentors have funded trips to South Africa, London and Mexico City for rival gang members in the hope that shared experiences and time away from the city streets would ease tensions and forge new connections.”

Wouldn’t we all like to take international vacations at the government’s expense? Surely, that would ease tensions for everyone of us!

What gives the Richmond Plan added salience is that it is being closely studied by other cities around the country—with an eye toward replication. In February, for example, the Washington, DC city council voted, unanimously, in favor of the idea.

Yet the District’s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, and the DC chief of police, Cathy Lanier, are resisting. As the Post explains, these opponents challenge just about every assertion made on behalf of the Richmond Plan:

[Lanier] and Kevin Donahue, Bow­ser’s deputy mayor for public safety, question the veracity of Richmond’s claims of having saved so many of the city’s most violent offenders, since mentors—and not police—pick the participants and there has not been a control group used to measure outcomes. “There’s never been a real evaluation of the program,” Lanier said. “They didn’t design the program to allow it to be evaluated,” Donahue added.

Still, even if the Richmond Plan can’t really be evaluated, some data are emerging: For instance, there’s a 20 percent rate (that we know about) of repeat criminality, and there have been “only” four deaths: “Five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort.”

The Post continues, ominously, “Four of the program’s fellows have died since 2010, including two who were killed by other fellows [according to the suspicions of Richmond Plan leaders]. The suspected killers have not been charged and remain in the program.”

Got that? Suspected killers remind on the payroll. Moreover, the Post adds, “Two killings in the past month—of a 14-year-old and 15-year-old —have pierced the aura of success. For all the efforts by the mentors to identify the most likely to be caught in violence and bring them into the program, they weren’t aware of either of the victims.”

Virgil is old enough to remember the 1960s, when the same idea—hire the hoodlums to make them slightly less hoodlum-y—was popular. Back then, it was the Black Panthers and other “Black Power” groups getting grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity and other Great Society money-spigots.

In that crazy era, in 1967 to be precise, Hollywood actually made a film, The Dirty Dozen, based on the absurd premise that the US Army in WW2 would send send convicted criminals and psychopaths on an important commando mission—and that the mission would succeed. In other words, the film’s message was a siren song for the worst kind of nihilism: If you will only open up the prisons, good things will happen!

In the following year, 1968, the Rolling Stones nailed the nuttiness of the Zeitgeist with their classic song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” including these lyrics:

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints

We might note that the amount of violent crime in America rose nearly 500 percent from 1960 to 1980. Things started to calm down only after Ronald Reagan was elected.

II. We’ve Been Down This Road Before, and Solved the Problem—So What’s Different Today? 

It can be argued, of course, that the Richmond Plan is relatively inexpensive. Yet, the $1000-a-month stipend that “fellows” receive is only part of the cost of the Plan, and even the whole program doesn’t include all the spending, from all sources, by the welfare system on these young men. Yet almost no matter how high the welfare expenditures might be, the cost, to society, of crimes committed and prison-sentences imposed is surely greater.

So if the Richmond Plan were actually to reduce criminality, it might be worth it. However, as we have seen, it’s not so clear that the Richmond Plan is reducing crime at all. It’s entirely possible that the Richmond Plan is simply a scam. And that certainly has been the pattern of social-welfare “start-ups” over the last half-century: The charismatically authentic “community” leader, typically adored by the MSM, turns out to be just another con man.

Yet at the same time, we can observe that there is value in giving idle hands something to do—and getting them off the mean streets.

Indeed, the strategic relocation of potential troublemakers was the big idea behind the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which, from 1933 to 1942, hired millions of young men and sent them to rural labor camps. The CCC was operated, we might add, by the US Army, which imposed military discipline on its enlistees.

So we can see the difference, then and now: The CCC was run by a stern, no-nonsense organization with a proven track record of producing good workers and good soldiers; some say that the CCC program paid for itself in terms of the public works and natural-resource improvements it built. Whether or not that’s true, it’s undeniable that millions of CCC alums entered into the US military during WW2 and became good soldiers—and that was priceless.

By contrast, today’s Richmond Plan consists of criminals hiring criminals, while keeping them in their ‘hoods. And thus, in contrast to the CCC, the Richmond Plan likely does little, if anything, to slow down the culture-of-poverty-driven progression—from street corner, to prison, to the grave.

Indeed, as we think about what works in personality-shaping and social-policymaking, we might agree that one can’t inculcate virtue into the non-virtuous without, oneself, having virtue. That is, if the name of the game is changing lives, insincere hypocrites and outright frauds are not helpful.

We’re not saying, here, that all anti-poverty workers need to be saints. But we are declaring that the structure itself must be basically sound, more right than wrong: It must prize honesty over dishonesty, non-violence over violence—and all the rules must be enforced in a fair manner. As George Will once put it, back when he was a conservative—that is, before he became a libertarian—“Statecraft is soulcraft.”

Furthermore, we can readily see that the needed soul-crafting presupposes a considerable degree of control over the subject population. That is, you have to have their undivided attention.

By contrast, if do-your-own-thing is the highest value, it’s unlikely that an anti-poverty program will succeed in changing risky behavior.

III. Soulcraft: Indoor and Outdoor

As we think about anti-poverty programs that have worked in the past,  we can make a useful categorical distinction: between what the English called “Outdoor Relief” and “Indoor Relief.” (And here Virgil declares his intellectual indebtedness to the great scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of a string of books on the history of anti-poverty efforts, both successful and unsuccessful.

Outdoor Relief means aiding people who find themselves in dire straits and, otherwise, leaving them alone. We can observe that Outdoor Relief works well enough in emergency situations, e.g. where a given population has been struck by a failed harvest or some other natural disaster.

The operating assumption of Outdoor Relief is that the people in need are basically functional, but just down on their luck. The hope is that once aid is provided, the recipients will quickly pull themselves together and resume being self-sustaining once again.

By contrast, Indoor Relief means bringing poor people into some institutional setting and then ministering to them, with an eye toward improving their personal behavior and economic viability. (As one might gather, the word “ministering” bespeaks the religious origins of this concept; unfortunately, here in the US, over the last century, actual ministers have been mostly eliminated from the process, replaced by secular social workers who provide “counseling,” or “empowerment.”)

Returning to England, we can note that beginning in the 17th century, the island nation began to systematize Indoor Relief. And we can pause to recognize that many readers might bridle at the thought of welfare for anyone. Yet at the time, the English thought they were simply following the Christian injunction to be their brother’s keeper. Moreover they knew that deliberate government policies, such as the Black Act and the many Enclosure Acts, had suddenly deprived rural folk of their traditional ability to make a living.

So, mindful that loose and desperate populations were a formula for trouble, the English developed Poor Houses, providing food and shelter for “paupers.” Yet at the same time, the Overseers of the Poor (an actual job-title) applied heavy behavioral modification to their charges; for example, the sexes were strictly segregated. Thus the idea of multi-generational relief was impossible: For the English authorities, the mission, which mostly succeeded, was to turn paupers into good citizens and, if necessary, good soldiers and sailors. In other words, English social-welfare policy wasn’t driven by soggy liberalism, but rather, by hard-nosed practicality.

The animating idea of Indoor Relief was tough love: Inmates in the Poor Houses would not starve, but conditions were such that it was a good idea to leave them as soon as possible.

It was, of course, easy to attack Poor Houses: Charles Dickens did so constantly in his novels. Yet it’s worth recalling that until the Industrial Revolution, England was poor, like the rest of the world; only with the coming of factories did the economic tide of the country start to rise, at which point the boats of the poor rose, too. Indeed, if one compares English social conditions in 1600 to conditions in 1900, it’s evident that the overall system of advancement worked well.

Here we can observe that the Poor Houses, and English anti-poverty efforts in in general, benefited enormously from religious participation. The Methodists, for example, were notable for their tirelessness in delivering effective messages of temperance and uplift. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the Methodists created the English bourgeoisie.

In addition, England also experimented with Outdoor Relief, in the form of the Speenhamland System, adopted in the south of England in 1795.

Confronted, in that last decade of the 18th century, by the bloody terror of the French Revolution—and worried that it might be internationally contagious—the English elite knew that it had to do something, and fast. Hence the Speenhamland System, providing direct assistance to the poor where they lived.

The Speenhamland System was targeted on London and its environs, the capital being, after all, a potentially revolutionary city. Needless to say, even though the individual allowances were small—too small to effect work-behavior adversely—the wide-scale System was expensive. And after 1815, when the threat of French Revolutionary Jacobinism had faded away, so did the Speenhamland System; England returned to the narrower (and cheaper) concept of Indoor Relief.

IV. American Welfare Policy Today

Now to America in the 20th century and beyond: Here, we’ve tried just about everything—Outdoor Relief, Indoor Relief, and hybrids of the two.

Social Security, the most popular and effective social program of the 20th century, is a sterling example of Outdoor Relief; that is, the senior-citizen recipient gets a check at his or her residence. Yet since Social Security is based on work-history—the senior has to have worked and paid in, in order to take out upon retirement—it has no negative behavioral effects on the work habits of the working-aged.

Welfare is also an Outdoor Relief program, although it is based on a much different premise: There is no presumption of work and, all too often, no pressure to get a job. And that’s why welfare, and related programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, have been so disastrous.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that welfare was a “narcotic,” and he was right.

Indeed, by 2016, we should have learned: It’s deeply destructive simply to give money to people who haven’t done anything, at any point in their lives, to earn it—and then allow such payments to become a multi-generational entitlement.

So today, we’ve had four or five generations of a “culture of poverty” that is so destructive that it even snuffs out the lives of many of its “beneficiaries” at an early age. And as we have seen, one of the perverse fruits of this noxious thicket of tangled thinking and costly spending programs is the Richmond Plan.

Okay, so those are some Outdoor Relief programs. Now, what of Indoor Relief programs? We’ve had plenty of them, too, although not so many lately.

The institutionalization of the mentally ill is an Indoor program—or at least it was.

In the middle of the last century, a long string of exposes—from Hollywood, from television, and from every other medium—convinced many Americans that mental hospitals and asylums were irredeemably awful. It is certainly hard to defend these big institutions as they were, but perhaps the answer was to make them better—to spend more money, and to make the reforms, to make them humane.

But the opponents of mental hospitals weren’t interested in reform—they wanted closure. And the opposition movement was a itself a  remarkable, and powerful, fusion of the libertarian left and the libertarian right.

The left-libertarians were led by the ACLU, of course. Yet we might pause to recall another hugely influential figure in those days: Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness and many similar works.

Szasz’s argument was, in effect, that we should blame society for all ills: That is, it was never the individual’s fault, it was always the collective’s fault. And so, for example, the individual should be free to take any and all psychoactive drugs, as a needed defense-mechanism against an oppressive civilization.

To put Szasz’s argument another way, it was all of society that was crazy, not a few unlucky people. That line of thinking itself might sound cra-cra today, but at the time, in the 60s and 70s, it was taken seriously by many.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, the right-libertarians, led by Milton Friedman, might have known that the mentally ill were, well, mentally ill. Yet even so, the Friedmanites couldn’t pass up the opportunity to save tax money by shutting down expensive institutions.

Moreover, there’s no small strain of thinking on the right which holds that man is just an economic being—homo economicus—and so managing human behavior is mostly a matter of getting the carrots and sticks right. As economists sometimes joke, “There are no bad people, just bad incentives.”

And thus the libertarian left and the libertarian right teamed up to form a pincer movement—a pincer movement on common sense—and the result was the massive de-institutionalization of the mentally ill: The inmate ill simply went from beds in hospitals to sidewalks on the streets.

Thus, supervised Indoor Relief became unsupervised Outdoor Relief. And if mental hospitals are no longer forbidding fortresses of fear, well, the streets themselves have become lonely desolation boulevards, where the addled homeless are free—free to freeze to death, free to die in the night amidst their shopping bags, free to be murdered in a feud over a good begging place.

Meanwhile, as we have seen for decades, the consequences for our cities are obvious: Our public places are crowded with dangerous crazy people, and so ordinary citizens, mindful of themselves and their families, choose to live elsewhere—as in, as far away as possible.

As The Atlantic noted this month, for all the glib talk about downtown gentrification and creative-class bohemias, the most popular destinations in America are found in the suburban sprawl of Texas, far from the hobo jungles.

In the sly words of writer Derek Thompson, “New York Times Styles Section readers could be forgiven for thinking everybody is following a trail from Manhattan to south Brooklyn to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then bouncing to Austin or Portland.”

But in fact, the most favored places are… Dallas and Houston. And while those Texas towns certainly have their homeless populations, in that reddest of red states, they are policed, and regulated, in a way that they are not in, say, San Francisco or New York.

Of course, now that the Obama administration and the courts have once again squelched the Lone Star State’s desire to drug-test welfare recipients, it’s possible that Texas will soon more closely resemble California, and other states which seem happy to permanently accommodate huge, and hopeless, welfare populations.

To sum up this discussion: It’s fine to provide Outdoor Relief, when it’s desperately needed, to a socially and morally intact population.

But it’s not so fine to provide Outdoor Relief, permanently, to a chaotic and violent population. Troubled people need the tough-love of Indoor Relief, even if they hate it. The point of Indoor Relief is to change behavior, to get the person on the track of law-abiding productivity. (And yes, as we have seen, if the liberals get their way, they will eliminate all the sanctioning teeth in Indoor Relief.)

Meanwhile, what they’re doing in Richmond, CA is perhaps the most outrageous Outdoor Relief program ever—they are actively subsidizing murderous pathology, so of course, they’ll get more of it.

And yes, it’s possible that this uniquely vile idea will be coming soon to a city near you.


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