How focused deterrence principles can reduce violence in correctional facilities.

Author:Oberlander, Derek F.

For most correctional facilities, violence (and particularly group violence) is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Seeking to deter alarming increases in staff assaults and inmate-on-inmate violence, the Washington State DOC and Pennsylvania DOC are successfully implementing strategies based on the Group Violence Interventions (GVI), a model involving focused deterrence principles originating in Boston's Operation Ceasefire. GVI, a strategy of the National Network for Safe Communities, has been implemented in dozens of cities to address shootings and homicides connected to street gangs and groups. In these cities, GVI has a demonstrated ability to reduce serious violence by as much as 30 to 70 percent. (1)

Operation Ceasefire, also known as "The Boston Miracle," is a community violence reduction strategy that was pioneered by David Kennedy, Director of the National Network for Safe Communities. Operation Ceasefire was established out of necessity in Boston in the mid-1990s to address a 263 percent increase in the youth homicide rate that sought to maximize the use of sanctions as a deterrent for group violence and resulted in a 63 percent reduction in the youth homicide rate after it was implemented. (2) Washington's Operation Place Safety and Pennsylvania's Operation Stop Violence are adapting the principles of GVI to correctional facilities and demonstrating their ability to deter violence in the correctional context.

What is focused deterrence?

In a meta-review of what works in reducing community violence, Thomas Abt and Christopher Winship explain that, "Focused deterrence interventions deter violent behavior by reaching out directly to offending individuals and groups explicitly stating that violence will no longer be tolerated, and then backing that message with credible threats of enforcement and credible promises of assistance, i.e. 'pulling every lever' to influence offending behavior." (3) In the review, the authors examined 30 strategies for reducing community violence and found that two stand out in terms of evidentiary strength and relevance to violent offending: focused deterrence and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Why group dynamics matter?

Kennedy writes, "There is a growing body of criminological evidence that shows that serious violence and much other crime is concentrated among a remarkable small number of people." (4) He adds that, "Urban homicide and gun violence is driven by a small population of highly active offenders operating in groups." (5) He goes on to note that recent interventions have found that other major crime problems, such as robbery and domestic violence, are also committed by a small number of people, who are locked in dynamics not of their own making that promotes violence and other serious crime. Some of the group dynamics that drive most of the violence in these communities include: vendettas, respect, peer pressure, "pluralistic ignorance," concentration of victimization and offending and the fact that groups are disproportionately involved in violence. Kennedy adds that, "Group dynamics are present in more than just security threat groups: group dynamics can exist in Security Threat Group (STGs), but also in gangs, crews, sets or any social network of people. If the group can influence or direct the violent behavior--it can deter it." (6)

Application to the prison context

During a presentation at ACA's 2018 Winter Conference, Stephen Lurie, a research and policy associate with the National Network for Safe Communities, discussed the elements for applying focused deterrence principles to prevent violence. Lurie said, "These elements are not a program that is administered in a specific order--it is an approach." He discussed that one of the elements is the identification of a crime problem, and in communities the crime problem typically involves youth or gun homicides. In a...

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