Urban Wire Investing in communities to promote public safety
Chelsea Thomson, Leah Sakala
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The United States incarcerates more than 2.3 million people and almost 5 million more are under correctional control, resulting in skyrocketing criminal justice budgets, far-reaching collateral consequences, and a negative impact on community stability.

There is widespread, bipartisan agreement that it’s time for a change, and a growing number of states and local governments are finding ways to  support community-level innovation to tackle crime and safety challenges.

Research shows that neighborhoods with more local organizations promoting public safety and community well-being experience greater reductions in violent and property crime. But too often, communities are equipped with the solutions, but not the resources, to lead efforts to address public safety needs.

Some communities are finding creative ways to access state and local funding to support their efforts. Our new report details several examples and offers lessons for policymakers and advocates.

Washington, DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services has reduced out-of-home placements by about half since 2011, saving millions of dollars. Three million dollars of those savings were allocated for a youth mentoring program to provide emotional support, resources, and training for youth in their communities.

This Credible Messengers Program, which pairs system-involved youth with mentors with similar life experiences, connects youth with community resources and supportive relationships to help them reach their educational and employment goals.

In Oakland, California, residents approved two ballot initiatives that created a parcel tax and parking surcharge to fund violence prevention and intervention programs, additional police officers, and fire service through 2024.​

Measure Z provides approximately $24 million annually and allocates about $8 million toward violence interruption programs. In 2018, grant administrator Oakland Unite awarded 33 grants to 26 agencies focused on life coaching, education and economic self-sufficiency, violent incident and crisis response, community asset building, and innovation. Participants in programs have lower arrest and reconviction rates (PDF), and people participating in adult life coaching and employment programs demonstrated fewer arrests for violent offenses (PDF).

Chicago’s No Cop Academy campaign envisions a divest-invest framework, pushing the city to redirect the $95 million it would cost to construct a proposed police training academy instead toward local residents’ identified community needs, such as education, housing, and employment opportunities.

The campaign’s community poll found that 72 percent of the 500 residents surveyed opposed the new academy project, and 95 percent recommended alternative investments that were better aligned with their priorities.

What should Investing in community-driven public safety initiatives look like? The practitioners we talked to offered several recommendations:

  1. Support community partners in determining public safety priorities through such strategies as community-based participatory research, grassroots surveys, analysis and community engagement of administrative data, and town halls and focus groups.
  2. Invest sufficient resources in organizations deeply embedded in communities to leverage existing networks, foster growth of new organizations, and ensure investments strengthen, rather than displace, the established community.
  3. Build sustainable funding streams to support long-term goals so organizations can strengthen their capacity for sustained service provision, support clients without the fear of funding reductions, and leverage public investment to diversify funding sources.
  4. Consider a funding intermediary to bridge agencies and community-based organizations to strengthen investment infrastructure, oversee and support grantees, broker relationships, and provide accountability.
  5. Document and communicate results to provide insight on public safety outcomes to current and potential funders, community members, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

Communities across the country are advancing creative solutions to transform safety and justice policy, and policymakers and advocates have much to learn from this work. Broadening public safety investment to support local innovators can lead to strategies that leverage the experience and expertise of those who are most familiar with the challenges at hand.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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