By Nick Wang / The Appeal
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.”
This article was written by Nick Wang for The Appeal.