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An Unprecedented Investment in Alternatives to Policing

by Nick Wing

Over the last year, states and jurisdictions have showered U.S. law enforcement with a tidal wave of new funding. Billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief aid have gone to pad already bloated police and prison budgets. President Joe Biden is now pushing Congress to funnel billions more to cops to support the hiring and training of 100,000 new officers.

The attention given to this spending spree is both deliberate and understandable. As politicians eagerly campaign on getting tough on crime, a sympathetic media has largely responded with positive coverage of their pro-police proposals. Justice advocates have stepped in to call out the harms that will likely follow.

But for all of the rightful concern, this focus on law enforcement spending has overshadowed a simultaneous—and seemingly more unprecedented—investment in alternative public safety responses.

Since 2021, around $500 million in new federal, state, and philanthropic funding has been directed toward initiatives that fall under the umbrella of so-called “community violence intervention,” or CVI, according to David Muhammad, executive director of the nonprofit National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). This figure is neither exact nor final, Muhammad clarified, because much of this money has yet to be fully disbursed, and many states and jurisdictions are still developing plans to increase CVI funding.

While Muhammad said he was pleased by the recent progress, he was quick to note that the new money is the equivalent of a “rounding error in the federal budget.” Overall, he said CVI is still getting a small fraction of the dollars that go toward other violence prevention strategies, including initiatives like youth development and mentoring. The recent funding is also many magnitudes less than the influx of new money that has gone toward policing and other punitive responses to violence.

“There has been a significant increase, and yet we still need a lot more,” Muhammad told The Appeal.

CVI programs typically work by directly engaging community members at high risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence. Many popular evidence-based CVI approaches—such as Advance Peace or Cure Violence—involve street outreach to mediate conflicts and connect participants with services and support designed to address the root causes of violence. As the relatively young field of CVI evolves, programs have diversified into more specific areas, including addressing trauma through therapy, treating alcohol or substance use disorder, or supporting people who are reentering the community after incarceration.

The largest and most immediate boost of CVI funding has come from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)—a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package that provided hundreds of billions to states, counties, and cities to spend on pandemic recovery. As Brian Dolinar reported for The Appeal earlier this year, many jurisdictions have used this pot of ARPA money to fuel spending on police, prisons, and jails. In some cases though, it has also been used to fund alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment centers, mental health crisis response teams, and CVI programs.

Not all of these CVI investments are equal. The lack of specific federal guidelines on “community violence intervention” spending under ARPA has allowed some jurisdictions to spend money allocated for CVI on things like squad cars, surveillance camera repairs, and controversial gunshot detection technology, according to recent reporting by The Marshall Project.

Muhammad held up Indianapolis as a city that is making one of the largest new investments in CVI. Officials there announced last year that they would be directing $150 million in ARPA funds to violence reduction programming. Although the mayor has said he wants to “put a priority on law enforcement,” the plan promises $45 million to grassroots groups and other community-based violence intervention efforts. The city has already begun awarding millions of dollars in new grants to dozens of local organizations.

In addition to the federal money through ARPA, the Biden White House has committed another $50 million in new CVI funding through its Community Violence Intervention Collaborative (CVIC). Officials haven’t begun distributing the money yet, according to Muhammad. States and philanthropies have also stepped up to substantially expand funding for CVI programs, he said.

The next few years will be crucial in determining whether the recent CVI investments become permanent. ARPA money is temporary, meaning jurisdictions will have to find more stable sources of funding if they want to maintain the new spending levels. While Muhammad said he’s optimistic that CVI initiatives will show promising results that could encourage future support, he noted that alternative approaches to public safety are often subject to extremely high levels of scrutiny, especially when compared to traditional responses like policing.

“We obviously need way, way, way more money, but this is also a young field, so we do need time to develop the infrastructure, train people, professionalize the field,” Muhammad said. “So as much as I think we need $100 billion, we’re not ready for $100 billion this second.”

There are broader questions about the role politics could play in promoting a more meaningful shift in our approach to public safety. One reason the public hasn’t heard more about this unprecedented CVI investment is that Biden and other Democrats appear to have made a strategic choice to campaign instead on their support for funding the police. This is bad political strategy, Muhammad argued. But there is still time to change course.

“Unfortunately, what we know is that Democrats are not good at messaging,” Muhammad said. “There is an opportunity to lift up a lot of places that have had success, both in increased investment but also in actual outcomes most importantly. I hope that the progressives, the left, Democrats eventually take advantage of that.”


In the news


Incarcerated people are striking in prisons across Alabama, led by Free Alabama Movement, a group that has been organizing from the inside against mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions for nearly a decade. [@jaybeware / Twitter] For some historical context, check out The Appeal’s Anna Simonton’s story from 2016, published in In These Times.

A New York Focus investigation by Appeal alum Chris Gelardi finds that New York state prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical disabilities to solitary confinement in possible violation of state law. [Chris Gelardi / New York Focus]

After months in a New York City shelter with her children, Leidy Paola Martinez Villalobos died by suicide. Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Rommel H. Ojeda report on the “bleak reality for a migrant family whose aspirations of grasping the American dream crumbled.” [Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio and Rommel H. Ojeda / Documented]

Rita Isbell’s brother, Errol Lindsey, was killed by Jeffrey Dahmer. Even though she’s depicted in Netflix’s new series, Isbell says Netflix never contacted her. “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy,” she said. “That’s just greed.” [Rita Isbell / Insider]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Congrats to Meg O’Connor on her Institute for Nonprofit News award for Best Investigative Journalism! If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Meg’s award-winning story on the culture of neglect that pervades NYPD’s Special Victims Division, and the tragic consequences the unit’s failures have brought.

Almost 2,000 people are imprisoned across Louisiana and Mississippi due to “habitual offender” laws, according to an analysis of data obtained by Tana Ganeva.

Meg O’Connor reports on Arizona’s abortion ban. Abortions may only be performed to save the life of the pregnant person—no exceptions for rape or incest. The law requires two to five years in prison for people who provide abortions. (Abortion funds still need financial support.)

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports on Louisiana’s plan to send “problematic youth” to Angola’s former death row unit.

Prison visitation rules were already difficult. But as formerly incarcerated writer Patrick Stephens notes, byzantine COVID-19 visitation limits have made seeing family almost impossible, while doing little to stop the spread of the disease.

Ethan Corey reports on the federal government’s failure to count thousands of deaths in law enforcement custody over the past three years.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

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