The Deteriorating Impact of the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program in Chicago

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Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) was launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 to reduce gun violence across 94 federal districts. The City of Chicago adopted this program the same year, targeting neighborhoods inflicted with high rates of poverty, unemployment, gang membership, and high school dropouts. Initial evaluations determined that PSN was working—violent crime decreased in areas considered to be “high-dose PSN sites” relative to others.

After more than a decade of PSN’s implementation, a new study led by Ben Grunwald and Andrew V. Papachristos evaluated the long-term impact of PSN in Chicago. The authors found that, contrary to popular belief, the results of the program’s effectiveness were not as significant as earlier studies indicated. In fact, they showed that the project reduced homicides in its first years of implementation, but like other anti-violence initiatives in Chicago, the effects “may have dissipated over time.”

The prosecution of gun crimes was revised after the city designed a case review process that allowed both federal and local prosecutors to review gun cases and determine whether to prosecute in state or federal courts. This strategy was meant to increase deterrence since federal courts typically result in longer, harsher sentences. The new gun policing tactics also brought on a proactive “gun team” to investigate gun use, sales, and trafficking, and to legally seize guns when deemed necessary rather than having law enforcement officials react to gun crimes. Through notification forums, local and federal law enforcement officials interacted with offenders who had a repeated history of gun violence or gang participation. Officials would warn offenders of PSN’s heightened criminal sanctions, and ex-offenders would discuss the struggles surrounding re-entry and the need for reduced violence.

In the short-term, these strategies led to the outcomes of interest. A prior study by Papachristos et al. measured the impact of PSN in the 11th and 15th districts on Chicago’s west side. The study found that communities with PSN projects experienced a 37 percent drop in homicides, which was associated with an uptake in federal prosecutions, an increase in the number of guns recovered, and an increase in attendance at offender notification forums. Their recent follow-up study found that “eligible offenders who attended a forum spent less time in prison than those that did not.”

So, what changes led to the program’s decline? Chicago began to rapidly expand PSN without any increase in its funding or personnel. When the city first launched the program, it focused primarily on the 11th and 15th districts on the west side of Chicago (including Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and the Near West Side), which had the highest per capita homicide rates in the city since the 1980s and represented eight percent of the city’s districts. By 2009, the city had expanded the reach of PSN to 24 percent of its districts and has now spread to nearly all high-crime districts without necessarily extending the amount of resources.

The decrease in assistance from partner organizations initially involved with PSN also contributed to PSN’s decline in resources. Many partner organizations have ceased to exist or faced detrimental challenges to staffing or funding so they could no longer provide adequate support. The authors suggest that this could have come about as a result of the aggressive expansion of PSN.

However, in spite of the questions that loom around its long-term effectiveness, PSN has been able to successfully galvanize a culture of increased accountability for gun users. Within its first three years of enforcement, PSN Chicago advocated three strategies: enhanced federal prosecution of gun crimes, increased supply-side gun policing tactics, and the creation of notification forums.

The early years of PSN were associated with a reduction in the rate of violence in high-crime communities, but the gains in the long-run seem to be diminishing. While lack of resources seems to be a major concern for PSN’s growth in the long-run, the researchers continue to search for patterns that may explain this shift. In order to recreate the original levels of PSN’s success, the City of Chicago should assess all the changes that helped the program work well in the first place and redefine success as PSN scales up its mission to improve the economic and social health of neighborhoods in Chicago.

Article source: Grunwald, Ben, and Andrew V. Papachristos. “Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago: Looking Back a Decade Later,” The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 107 (2017).

Featured photo: cc/(wellphoto, photo ID: 153717432, from iStock by Getty Images)

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