Tales Of The Great Stupid: Yes, San Francisco Really Is Going To Pay Potential Criminals Not To Shoot People

Do I really have to explain again what’s wrong–as in unethical— with policies like this? Paying kids to do their homework, not to skip school, or not to use drugs; paying young women not to get pregnant, paying people to get vaccinated—all of these desperate plans undermine societal ethics, turning what must be taught as basic duties of responsible citizenship and life management into quid pro quo trade-offs. Such formulas reward the refusal to behave ethically by paying social miscreants to conform to ethical norms.

Ethics Alarms has written about these offensive programs many times. This one may be the worst of all. The only argument proponents can come up with is extreme utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. In such cases, however, the means involves rejecting ethics, duty and responsibility as essential motivations for good behavior and adopting habits of virtuous conduct.

Naturally, the latest pay-the-bad-guys scheme comes from San Francisco, where the District Attorney has solved the shop-lifting problem by making petty theft legal. I was preparing to write about this when I read that Governor Newsom’s test-marketed theme to win his recall election will be “It’s me or Trump.” This parody of a progressive governor has created a state culture where paying thugs not to kill is looked upon as reasonable, and he thinks implying that Trump, who isn’t running for anything in the Golden State, would be worse will attract votes. And he’s probably right!

Do enjoy the San Francisco Examiner’s humina-humina explanation of why “the city is paying potential killers $300 not to shoot people” is an unfair and misleading description of the new program that will pay potential killers $300 not to shoot people. It is a Rationalization #64 (“It isn’t what it is”) classic:

“Paying criminals not to shoot” is a catchy headline, but it is an extraordinarily inaccurate description of the actual program being developed. Here is the more complex truth. Through a grant from the California Violence Intervention Program, the city of San Francisco created the RISE program — Risk, Intervention, Support, and Enforcement. Through a data-driven process, RISE identifies a small number of people in The City who are at very high risk of being involved in gun violence. Those individuals are referred to outreach workers who locate and engage them and then connect them with an intensive life coach. Life coaches are known as “credible messengers,” people with similar lived experience as the clients, but who have turned their life around and now serve as examples and mentors. The goal is to connect the life coaches with people who are at the very highest risk of gun violence, those who without intervention may become a victim or suspect in a shooting in the next six months. A detailed data analysis of this population in San Francisco revealed that these are primarily young Black men in their 20s, who have significant criminal justice involvement, are a part of some neighborhood clique or group and are connected in some way to a recent shooting.Incentives are nothing new in community-based organizations, corporations or government. And the small cost of an incentive far outweighs the extreme expense of the criminal justice system. In California, the annual cost of each inmate is $80,000. An evaluation of Oakland’s Life Coaching program, which uses modest incentives, showed it led to reduced rates of recidivism, therefore saving taxpayers much more than it costs…A small portion of the grant funds are earmarked for financial incentives for the young adult clients that will be served by SVIP. The crux of the program is to create positive and trusting relationships between the life coach and the very high risk client. A small part of the program is providing a modest financial incentive to achieve milestones, like completing rehabilitation programs and finding a job.”

Translation: The city will try other stuff to stop potential criminals from committing violent crimes, but it still will pay them $300 not to do what trustworthy, law-abiding citizens do for free because it’s how civilized, ethical Americans live. Thus the program will reward people for not being civilized and ethical. Got it!

Note how the best the author can do is make non-ethical arguments for this unethical policy. Incentives are “nothing new.” Yes, idiotic and unethical California policies are nothing new either: that’s not a defense (The rationalization is a version the Big #1, “Everybody Does It”). The other argument is that it’s cheaper to pay sociopaths not to kill people than to have to arrest them, try them, and lock them up. This reminds me of the complaint of Butch Cassidy in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when he learns that railroad tycoon Averill Harriman has hired a posse of famous law men to hunt the pair down no matter how long it takes: “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him! It’s just bad business!” This was a gag line in the film. Not in California! Alas, yes: the rule of law is bad business, but it’s mandatory ethics.

In the end, the new policy echoes the current progressive delusion: if we give the criminals, bad citizens and burdens on society enough money they’ll be responsible, productive and law abiding. It’s not about right and wrong, it’s just about “incentives.”

10 thoughts on “Tales Of The Great Stupid: Yes, San Francisco Really Is Going To Pay Potential Criminals Not To Shoot People

    • It would be cheaper still (and in keeping with the theme of the program) to just go ahead and shoot the “at risk” criminals. That’s what the police do anyway, right?

  1. I don’t know if they’re implementing the practice ethically or effectively, but I disagree that it’s a bad idea (with one stipulation). I definitely see where you’re coming from: why reward people to do what they should be doing anyway? That will train humans to do things for a reward, not because it’s ethical.

    Counterpoint: As I understand it, the program is ostensibly not actually rewarding people. They’re finding people who need help, who have reached a bad place in their life through bad decisions and a bad environment, and helping them. “[People who] have significant criminal justice involvement, are a part of some neighborhood clique or group and are connected in some way to a recent shooting” translates to “gang members who’ve been arrested multiple times.” What alternative would you suggest as a more effective way to weaken the power of gangs? Maintain the status quo? Declare war on them? Engage in pre-crime arrests of these people before they shoot someone?

    Stipulation: If this program is enacted on its own, without any other programs, then yes, it could very well incentivize people to join gangs in order to get life coaching and other help. Declaring that only squeaky wheels get grease is not a great policy in general, but it’s especially terrible when “squeaking” translates to “making bad decisions and seeming like you’ll soon shoot someone”. That just means we need other programs in addition to this one, and they should be tied together logistically and bureaucratically, so that people who run things are aware of how they impact one another.

    In other words, at the same time as we intervene with the most desperate people in order to prevent them from hurting others (a good short-term investment), we should also be intervening proportionately at all levels so that fewer and fewer people get to that point in the long term.

    What form that intervention should take, and whether those involved will implement it effectively, I don’t know yet. Whether there are even any plans for intervening at less urgent levels of poverty and desperation, I don’t know yet. Whether the short-term program is being implemented the way I described, I don’t know yet. I’m not going to assume that humans will implement it competently. I’m only here to point out that the concept is valid and I’d support a competent implementation.

  2. “turning what must be taught as basic duties of responsible citizenship and life management into quid pro quo trade-offs”

    Next thing you know, somebody will be proposing we pay people to vote!

  3. Anybody consider Newsom’s moratorium on execution of inmates on death row as a possible reason for the rise in violent crime in SF and other large cities in California? Nope, I suppose the lefties who are anti recall never thought of this.

  4. My initial comment was pure snark but I spent 5 years of my career working with prison inmates running post secondary education programs.
    When programs are easily entered they are used to do easy time. When the programs are hard to get into with high opportunity costs if screwing up they are taken seriously: expect much get much; expect little get little.
    Outreach to offenders fails more often then it helps. When outreach originates by the inmate seeking help it is successful.
    You don’t need to have a similar lived experience to help those who want to change but trust is built on being brutally honest with them.
    I would not put much faith in a program that requires that the program in essence “beg” participants to do thecright thing. Programs that threaten to take away opportunities for failing to fulfill commitments work better. EC’s comments are logical but the best intentioned programs fail to understand that the criminal element learn early how to game the system and manipulate those delivering services.

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