A California city is paying would-be murderers not to shoot anybody -- and it's working

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If you want to be a fellow for the Office of Neighborhood Safety in Richmond, California, you have to have the right background.

These are "the most lethal (or potentially lethal) young men in our city," says program director Devone Boggan. "Young men that we believe will be involved as a shooter or a victim of gunfire within a 6-12 month period."

Once these men are identified by Boggan and his team, they'll start building a rapport. Then, when the relationship is there, Boggan's team makes a pitch: we'll pay you to get your life on track – and stay out of gunfire.

It's a simple and radical tactic.

And it's needed.

According to the Violence Policy Center, the second-leading cause of death of people aged 10 to 24 in the state of California is homicide. For African Americans of the same age range, it's the leading cause.

The body count is especially bad in Richmond, an East Bay city of 103,000 people that sits 17 miles northeast of San Francisco. It was once a city where you could get shot for trying to buy a bag of chips at the wrong place.

In 2007, Richmond was one of the most deadly places in the US, with a murder rate of 45.9 per 100,000 residents, putting it just below murder capitals like Flint, Michigan and New Orleans, Louisiana. Other California cities of the same size had a murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000 residents.

That same year, the city launched a public-private partnership called the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

The idea: find the most dangerous people in Richmond, and pay them to get their lives on track.

As Tim Murphy notes on Mother Jones, the operating metaphor here is violence as disease. Historically, the epidemic of violence has been treated by quarantine — that is, locking people up in prison. But ONS represents a different approach: "inoculating" the people who carry the "disease" of violence, and hopefully stabilizing communities potentially the entire cityin the process.

It works like this:

• Four times a year, ONS's street team identifies the 50 people in Richmond who are most likely to shoot somebody or get shot. "We base this on information that we gain through our street outreach efforts, corroborated with law enforcement intel, community input and current and past Fellow recommendations," Bogan tells Tech Insider.

• Then ONS focuses on building relationships with those at-risk people, meeting them in familiar places like church and barber shops.

• Once a rapport is established, ONS asks if they'd like to become a "fellow" of the program.

• Fellows then draw up a "life map" of personal and professional goals they'd like to pursue.

• About every two months, fellows get a stipend for how well they adhere to the goals they set.

Once you think about it, it's simple.

And it's been remarkably effective.

Within the population of fellows, Murphy reports, 94% are still alive and 79% haven't been arrested or charged with gun-related offenses.

There has been progress in the city overall, as well. In 2013, Richmond's murder rate fell to 15 homicides per 100,00 residents. And while the data for 2014 isn't all available yet, reports indicate that there have been just 11 homicides per 100,000 residents — a 76% decrease since 2007.

The ONS also has had a huge impact on the lives of its fellows, as one anonymous source said in a report in National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

"I've seen the path I was on," he said. "[The ONS] pulled me from a lot of things. They saved my life. They are committed to me even when I am not. To think about how I was... almost brings a tear to my eye. Now I have a better relationship with family."

When we asked Boggan what has made ONS so successful, he supplied a laundry list of reasons: mainly, that his team of outreach staff has stuck around as the program has grown, and they offer attention to these young men — without being police.

In short, ONS has earned the trust of these young men.

Will the model spread to other cities?

"Absolutely," Boggan says. "Cautiously, but certainly!"

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