Diana Cuautle

No Program Is a Panacea: The Fate of Focused Deterrence

Greg Berman

Why are so many activists and academics ambivalent about an evidence-based approach to reducing violence?

Why are so many activists and academics ambivalent about an evidence-based approach to reducing violence?

With the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, I have been studying the recent spike in gun violence in New York and other American cities. As part of this investigation, I have talked to a range of criminal justice scholars and practitioners to get their sense of what’s gone wrong over the past couple of years—and what to do about it. One of the most striking themes that has emerged from these conversations is a profound ambivalence about “focused deterrence,” a crime reduction strategy that was hailed as a pathbreaking departure from the norm not so long ago. 

Originally conceived by David Kennedy of John Jay College, focused deterrence builds on the idea that, even within high-crime neighborhoods, a very small number of individuals are responsible for a disproportionate share of the serious offending. According to the National Network for Safe Communities, street groups comprising under one half of one percent of the population are responsible for as much as 70 percent of the local homicides in American cities.

While the notion that a few people drive the majority of violent crime has been around for a while, focused deterrence makes the logical next move, attempting to concentrate the resources of the criminal justice system on these high-risk individuals. Focused deterrence engages law enforcement and community actors in identifying the members of groups that are engaging in violence within any given community. They are told in no uncertain terms that the violence needs to stop. Offers of assistance are made to those interested in getting help. They are also told that further acts of violence by the groups in question will result in sanctions, including arrest, prosecution and incarceration. These twin messages, of potential help and potential punishment, are communicated clearly and in person to reduce the chances of any confusion or misunderstanding.

Kennedy first outlined the basic concept of focused deterrence back in the 1990s in “Pulling Levers: Chronic Offenders, High-Crime Settings, and a Theory of Prevention," one of the most influential academic articles about criminal justice of the past generation. Simultaneously visionary and pragmatic, “Pulling Levers” went viral the old-fashioned way, being passed from person to person in the days before Twitter and Facebook. 

This process was aided by a real-life test of the strategy in Boston, where researchers documented that it contributed to a significant reduction in youth homicide. Since then, thanks largely to Kennedy’s advocacy, the model has been adapted in dozens of other American cities.

A host of interventions that were previously viewed as cutting-edge are currently being reappraised. 

Caterina Roman of Temple University was the researcher for one such adaptation in Washington, D.C. While admitting that the evidence suggests that focused deterrence reduces violence, she nevertheless has profound reservations about the model. “I think the big issue for me about its effectiveness is that we're only looking at the outcomes related to police data and changes in violence at the aggregate level,” she says. “We're not asking who benefits from the intervention and who is burdened.” For Roman, the bottom line is this: “There are so many things that could go wrong with focused deterrence, given its complex implementation structure. You can reduce violence but harm people.”

Many critics of focused deterrence take issue with the fact that the model involves the traditional apparatus of the criminal justice system, including policing and incarceration, albeit in precise and targeted ways. A controversial 2018 article in The Nation, “How a Group Policing Model Is Criminalizing Whole Communities,” argued that while focused deterrence “looks progressive,” in reality, it is anything but. This rhetorical move is hardly unusual these days. A host of interventions that were previously viewed as cutting-edge, including swift and certain probation, drug court and others, are currently being reappraised. This is in many respects the natural evolution of things, as yesterday’s innovation becomes today’s conventional wisdom that must be overturned. 

This process has only accelerated in the aftermath of the slaying of George Floyd and the emergence of an international movement focused on combatting racism in the criminal justice system. It has become particularly tricky to advance crime reduction strategies, like focused deterrence, that rely on the active engagement of police. Jeff Butts of John Jay College expresses this sentiment clearly: “I think anyone who thinks that the way to improve public safety is to invest in law enforcement is just pushing us further down the path toward a police state, where the only public safety we have is purchased and maintained through force and coercion.”

Jeremy Travis, the executive vice president of the Arnold Ventures philanthropy, understands the critique, but has chosen to invest a great deal of his time and energy in promoting focused deterrence. According to Travis, “Research is the beginning and ending point of my analysis here. And the research shows very strongly that the focused deterrence intervention reduces violence and saves lives. All the metrics that we care about are going in the right direction under focused deterrence. So I would consider focused deterrence to be a necessary part of every crime strategy.”

Thomas Abt of the Council on Criminal Justice is equally emphatic: “No program is a panacea, but focused deterrence currently has the strongest body of evidence supporting its effectiveness for reducing urban gun violence.” Indeed, a recent review of the research on focused deterrence conducted by the Campbell Collaboration found that there is strong empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the model. But Caterina Roman also has a point: the evaluation literature to date has largely focused on the model’s impacts on local crime rates, as opposed to taking a broader view of both benefits and costs. 

One problem for focused deterrence is that it has long been viewed in opposition to Cure Violence, a violence reduction strategy that emphasizes hiring individuals with a history of violence as “violence interrupters” to perform street outreach and mediate conflicts. This rivalry was fueled in part by the fact that for many years, the two interventions both used the name “Ceasefire” as part of their branding. In recent years, Cure Violence has tapped into the zeitgeist and expanded broadly, with some even hoping that violence interrupters could serve as a replacement for policing.

Given the alarming rise of gun violence in New York City, we have to see the rivalry of focused deterrence and Cure Violence as the false choice that it is. We will need both of these strategies, and more besides, if we are to make a meaningful dent in the violence.

When I was the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation, I had some direct experience with the focused deterrence vs. Cure Violence dynamic. We helped bring Cure Violence to New York City, opening the city’s first adaptation of the model in Crown Heights in 2009. It quickly proved to be one of our most popular programs, both internally and externally. We subsequently expanded to other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

By contrast, our effort to help implement a version of the focused deterrence model in Brownsville was short-lived and failed to generate much enthusiasm among either staff or funders. I can’t say for certain why this was, but I suspect one reason was that the project was viewed as an extension of an oppressive criminal justice system.

Given the alarming rise of gun violence in New York City and other places, we have to see the rivalry of focused deterrence and Cure Violence as the false choice that it is. We will need both of these strategies, and more besides, if we are to make a meaningful dent in the violence that continues to plague many New York neighborhoods.

Focused deterrence is no panacea, but it has shown that, if well implemented, it can help reduce violence in the short-term. In the midst of a surge of violence with catastrophic implications for the individuals, families and neighborhoods involved, we cannot afford to ignore strategies with a proven track record of success. But we do need to be thoughtful about how we market these strategies to reluctant partners and skeptical communities. Overcoming the rivalry with Cure Violence and starting to talk about these two programs as part of a single, multifaceted crime-fighting strategy would be an important step. Returning to the pre-pandemic trajectory of declining community violence will likely require both the targeted use of the formal criminal justice system and investments in the kinds of community-based interventions and civic goods that, over the long haul, have the potential to stimulate informal mechanisms of social control and help keep the peace without the need for heavy-handed law enforcement. ◘

Further Reading

At the Crossroads

Pulling Levers: Chronic Offenders, High-Crime Settings, and a Theory of Prevention