Politics & Policy

In Trenton’s Deadliest Year, an Effort to Reach Out to Violent Offenders

The number of year-to-date homicides in Trenton, N.J. rose to 32 in August, the highest ever recorded in the city. These grisly numbers come after years of austerity measures implemented by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, including cuts that resulted in the laying off 105 police officers — about a third of Trenton’s police force.

Last week New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman announced the continuation of a month-old effort to bring peace to the beleaguered state capital.

Hoffman’s response includes two initiatives that began on August 15: The Targeted Integrated Deployment Effort (TIDE) brought a surge of state police into the city to reinforce its thinning ranks, and the Targeted Anti-Gun (TAG) program that established, according to the Trentonian, mandatory minimum sentences of 3.5 years, with no possibility of parole, “for gang members, drug dealers and repeat offenders convicted of possessing an illegal weapon” in Mercer County.

At a press conference, Hoffman reported 549 arrests since the mid-August deployment (in a city of fewer than 85,000), 18 of whom will be charged under TAG. At the time of the announcement, there had been no murders in September, but a few days later the city suffered its 33rd homicide.

Along with these flashy, get-tough policies, Hoffman unveiled the $1.2 million Trenton Violence Reduction Strategy (TVRS), which will unfold over three years. It likely won’t produce instantaneous results, because it involves rigorous data collection, community outreach and intensive planning. But if it works as planned, its results will last far longer than the immediate reprieve achieved by TIDE and TAG.

It is widely agreed that hard-hitting police tactics may reduce violence and overt drug activity for a few months. But after resource-intensive programs end, neighborhoods soon wind up back where they started. TVRS will instead try to confront serious and chronic offenders, including some with a history of violence, and offer them a choice: Arrest with probable hard jail time the next time they get busted, or access to social services, job training, and counseling.

TVRS is a collaboration between the College of New Jersey, the Trenton Police Department, the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement, and Louis Tuthill, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers-Camden. It draws from the best practices of deterrent programs that engage offenders and the community, like Project Safe Neighborhoods, Boston’s Operation Ceasefire and the High Point Drug Market Intervention Strategy, named for the North Carolina city where it was first enacted. All of these programs have included a degree of community involvement and outreach to offenders, usually with warnings of advanced penalties for overt drug activity or violent behavior, sometimes coupled with offers to help them go legit.

The High Point model seems most akin to TVRS, although it focuses on drugs instead of violence. Here’s how it works: Police collect enough evidence to put offenders away for a long time. The targets are asked to attend a group meeting, where they meet community members who explain the damage that violence and drugs have wrought on the neighborhood. Then cops show their cases against the offenders and inform them that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if busted again. Social services are offered to help get them started outside the criminal life. According to a Department of Justice report on the High Point Strategy, which cities across the country have adopted, these tactics have successfully ended overt drug dealing in targeted neighborhoods and usually reduce violent crime in those same areas. (A more conservative report from the Michigan State University still praised its “significant impact on the level of violent, drug, and nuisance offenses.”)

Boston’s Project Ceasefire, which began in the mid-’90s, zeroed in on violence. Young gang members were promised that the full power of the law would be brought down whenever violence occurred. They may get arrested on other charges, but violence was the priority and such cases would be pursued and prosecuted to an entirely different degree.

“The Boston Ceasefire model was pretty simple,” says Tuthill, who formerly worked for the Justice Department and oversaw the evaluation and research on a variety of community-oriented crime reduction models. “You call these guys in and say, ‘Hey if you keep engaging in this criminal behavior, we are going to arrest you and prosecute you quickly and get you up on many counts as we can and send you to jail for the better part of your life.’”

TVRS will use a scared-straight model, too, but Tuthill says it will be accompanied by robust social services for the offenders and their families. He anticipates that those targeted will have lived outside the legal job market for a long time and probably lack basic skills needed to seek employment and navigate bureaucracies. Without help, they could easily flounder and end up in prison. So TVRS will provide each individual with a mentor — Tuthill hopes to recruit Trenton residents with street credibility — to guide them through applying for and maintaining jobs. There will also be a social worker assigned to manage the offender’s family and help them access safety net programs.

“We are looking for a more sustained effect,” Tuthill says. “Getting people to feel an ownership of their communities, getting those who may have been engaged in illicit activity into jobs, into counseling, community college, whatever the resources are that they need. Returning ownership to the community — that’s how you create lasting change.”

It’s difficult to imagine, in the state’s current environment of austerity, where sufficient social services can be found to address a surge of fresh need. But Tuthill insists that it isn’t a matter of creating new programs or massively expanding existing ones. He argues that the families who now receive social services are struggling, but generally have the social capital and educational wherewithal to navigate the bureaucracy. The families he anticipates TVRS interacting with probably do not have those resources. The intervention will strive to allow them access.

TVRS will begin in two Trenton neighborhoods, which Tuthill says have not yet been chosen. But he has begun analyzing trend data to find the geographic regions with the worst crime, while police decide which individuals to target. Community meetings will begin before making contact with offenders, in the hopes that residents will present TVRS with angles it may have missed and point out environmental factors in their neighborhoods — overgrown hedges, burnt-out streetlights — that contribute to crime.

One of the High Point strategy’s more perceptive points was then-police chief James Fealy’s realization that hard-charging police tactics were not only ineffective, but alienated the community. So pairing TVRS with the more hardline aspects of Hoffman’s intervention seems like an odd, if not counterproductive, choice. (The very nature of the Targeted Gun Initiative seems suspect, given that a 2009 survey of mandatory minimum sentencing found that “there is no credible evidence that the enactment or implementation of such sentences has significant deterrent effects.”)

“It is true that there were a lot of policies in the 1990s where [police] went into communities and just kind of arrested everybody,” Tuthill says. “That was not how TAG was developed. TAG was… very surgical. They identified the worst offenders in the city, brought them up on charges, and arrested them. It wasn’t [just] running and gunning through the city.”

“That said,” Tuthill adds, “now we have a vacuum, which generally gets filled in six to nine months by the next run of people.”

That’s where TVRS comes in. But in a city with high unemployment, relatively low levels of car ownership, and a national economy that looks very grim for low-skill workers, how will the targeted offenders find work? Of 75 High Point dealers brought in to meet with community members and law enforcement under the original program, 44 relapsed into crime, 20 of them for drug-related offenses. Among those who stayed out of trouble, only one managed to maintain steady employment.

The Trenton Violence Reduction Strategy has a much greater focus on helping offenders avoid crime in the first place, so its prospects are unlikely to be as grim. But the big question remains: Where will they find the jobs that help keep them away from crime?

Jake Blumgart is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia.

Tags: policy, public safety, crime, chris christie, new jersey, trenton, violence, community engagement