America is undergoing a homicide crisis. At least 12 U.S. cities have broken their all-time homicide records in 2021; homicides were up 29 percent in 2020 and are up another 21 percent in 2021. Chicago alone has endured more than 750 murders so far in 2021, and they aren’t getting solved; many cities are experiencing declining homicide clearance rates. We need urgent action to solve more of these crimes and hold the perpetrators accountable. The question is how.
One answer that has proven effective might surprise you: therapy. Violence prevention programs that incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have proven effective in helping those who participate control their emotions and deescalate situations that could lead to violence and even homicide. In Chicago, for example, one CBT program reduced arrests for violent crimes among young people by half, while another reduced homicide arrests by 80 percent.
ROCA, a successful CBT program for youths and young adults that serves Boston and Baltimore, described CBT as “a way to understand how situations affect what we think and say in our head, what we feel in our bodies, and what we do in response.” It’s a tool that helps break the cycle that all too often leads to murder.
One Chicago CBT-based program, Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man, features group sessions that are built into the school day, using CBT to help participants model how they would react in perilous situations. Another innovative Windy City program, READI Chicago, targets young men at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence with up to 18 months of paid transitional jobs and CBT along with other supportive services, such as skill-based workshops.
Another effective violence prevention approach is focused deterrence, which prevents violence with what’s known as the “call-in,” a neighborhood meeting convened to provide productive pathways and stern warnings for young people who have been or are believed to be involved in gang activity such as open-air drug markets. At these call-ins, positive influencers from ministers to grandparents urge young men to desist from crime, while officers and prosecutors emphasize the consequences that will result from future lawbreaking. At the same time, addiction and mental health counselors and job training programs are on hand to provide professional assistance and alternatives.
Operation Ceasefire, one of the focused deterrence programs, has been found to reduce homicides by between 35 to 60 percent in cities from Boston to Cincinnati.
While police are indispensable in many contexts, it’s not logical to expect a victim who himself was engaged in illegal activity to look to law enforcement to resolve a simmering conflict involving gangs and potentially illegal activity. This is where street outreach and hospital-based violence prevention programs come into play. They offer significant potential to avert violence through the help of a credible messenger—someone who successfully overcame gang involvement as a young person, for example, who a participant can feel comfortable confiding in about an interpersonal conflict, which then allows the intervenor to find a way to peacefully mediate.
Though not all street outreach programs have delivered, the Advance Peace program has moved the needle on violent crime in California cities such as Stockton and Richmond. From 2018 to 2020, the program’s credible messengers or “fellows” mediated more than 500 conflicts in Stockton. And gun violence fell 45 percent in districts within Stockton where the program operated. An evaluation of the program in Sacramento has shown similarly positive results.
Ideally, conflicts can be defused before someone is hurt, but hospital-based violence prevention programs are also promising. Such a program in Baltimore that provides both intervention in the hospital and follow-up counseling services has led to a three-fold decrease in arrests among participants.
Finally, research on prisoner reentry suggests that inside-out programs, which focus on helping the formerly incarcerated integrate back into outside life, are most likely to yield results. These approaches are not a substitute for law enforcement strategies such as proactive policing, but they can complement them. In each case, they focus on individuals who have a high chance of being shot or shooting someone based on factors like previous involvement in serious crime and violence. Such targeting means resources can be far more efficiently used than in older, non-targeted prevention programs. These earlier efforts tended to spread a minimal level of intervention over far too many participants and relied on authority figures rather than credible messengers.
Programs involving CBT, focused deterrence, and street and hospital-based outreach can provide much-needed off-ramps from conflict where they are most needed.
Most importantly, targeted violence prevention programs are not just notable for what they entail, but also for what they do not. They do not require achieving transformative outcomes for our entire society like ending poverty and racism, bringing the high school drop-out rate to zero, or ensuring all children have supportive and attentive parents. Such sweeping goals may not even be attainable for government or non-profit actors, and they trigger conflicting and ideologically freighted policy proposals. Instead, violence prevention interventions targeted to a relatively small number of people can produce outsized results.
The conflicts that lead to homicide can seem inevitable and intractable. Fortunately, there is an emerging science of violence prevention that suggests otherwise. Through collaborative interventions focused on the where the problem is most concentrated, we can build pathways away from violence and towards a future in which the human potential for change triumphs over the perils of conflict.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.