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'Still Evolving' Violence Interventions Need Breathing Room: Panel

Despite an unprecedented federal investment in community-based violence intervention (CVI) programs in the past few years, such work is at risk of failing to meet expectations about how quickly and conclusively it can help reduce everyday gun violence, a panel of experts said in a Department of Justice webinar on Monday.

It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect newly funded programs to show strong results in a short period of time when the public-safety challenges they tackle have roots in systemic social problems and when there are too few resources devoted to formally evaluating the effectiveness of the CVI programs, the panelists said at a program produced by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs.

The program, moderated by LISC's James Stark, marked the launch of a resource center connected with DOJ’s primary funding mechanism for local programs, the Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative. A video of the panel discussion will be posted at that website in the coming days.

Eddie Bocanegra, a veteran CVI practitioner from Chicago and senior advisor to OJP, likened the situation today to a cancer hospital that must apply different types of treatments for cancer cases ranging from Stage 1 to Stage 4, but where the medical staff has just begun getting trained. 

Just because the staff will lose some patients, especially when they take on the toughest cases, does not mean that the government’s new investments have already failed, he said. “The field is still evolving,” Bocanegra said.

“You’re not going to see sustained reductions in violence” or the evidence that these programs work unless the programs become part of a broader effort to address the disinvestment and social disadvantages that breed gun violence in our most challenged communities, said Dr. Shani Buggs of UC Davis. 

Bocanegra’s boss, Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon, opened the webinar by touting the Biden administration’s funding of CVI programs: nearly $200 million in the past two budget cycles, and a new round awaiting congressional approval for fiscal 2024. While far short of the more than $5 billion the administration vowed to seek when it came into office but failed to win from Congress, that two-year infusion of grant funding into a host of local community groups is part of a federal anti-violence program that DOJ said totaled $4.4 billion in fiscal 2023, including anti-violence programs like Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Public Safety Partnership. 

The community-based organizations getting the new funding serve as complements, or alternatives, to law enforcement. They provide a range of interventions, such as “violence interrupters,” hospital-based intervention, and therapeutic counseling to change high-risk young people’s thinking. 

Panelist James Timpson of Roca Impact Institute said the cognitive behavioral therapy-based training his group provides takes on the toughest challenges — young, violence-prone people who reject other youth programs and who will remain alienated from approaches that seek to deter them from committing violence without providing them ways to shift their behavior. 

Another panelist, R. Brent Decker of Cure Violence Global, agreed that serving the people who typically got kicked out of more traditional programs poses real challenges. But, he said, “the CVI perspective is there’s something that actually can be done” about chronic street violence. “It doesn’t have to wait 20 years,” Decker said. “It has a message of hope.” 

The DOJ program behind the new resource center, CVIPI, has funded organizations and public agencies in more than 40 cities, overlapping in some places with the 12-city privately funded Coalition to Advance Public Safety. Both go beyond funding intervention groups to provide them with training and technical assistance, which is also the goal of the new resource center and its series of upcoming webinars. 

Another federal effort at coordinating and encouraging more CVI work is run out of the White House, through the Office of Violence Prevention that was started last year. 

The White House last Friday hosted a graduation ceremony for the first 31 people to complete the University of Chicago Crime Lab’s first Community Violence Intervention Leadership Academy, where DOJ’s Solomon pledged the administration’s support for the CVI strategies that she called “a centerpiece of our work at OJP.”

At that ceremony, Vice President Kamala Harris, who oversees the new Office of Violence Prevention, applauded the interventionists doing “the hard work that comes with caring about folks” at greatest risk of gun violence. 


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