Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Critical Look at the Violence Prevention Initiative

By Henry Loyer

The Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) is a zero tolerance parole policy adopted in Maryland in 2007 by Governor O’Malley’s administration.  The administration’s stated goal for VPI is: “To identify that relatively small core group of offenders who are most likely to engage in violent crime, and to develop a containment model to effectively manage and supervise those offenders in a community-based setting.” However the reality of the program is far less tame than this description suggests.  VPI over incorporates Maryland residents, over punishes people enrolled in it, and over exaggerates its success.

To identify that relatively small core group of offenders who are most likely to engage in violent crime

The exact mechanism by which people on parole are enrolled into VPI is not very transparent, there are no statistics, and no specific criteria available.  However, the Maryland Crime Prevention Plan does give the general criteria: “Any offender under DPP supervision who is: 1) Under 29 years of age; 2) Has 7 or more arrests and: 3) Is currently under supervision for Felony Drug Offenses, Armed Robbery, Carjacking, Felony Assault, Handgun Violations, Kidnapping or Murder is automatically assigned to the Violence Prevention Unit within DPP.” The plan does not say whether one, all, or some of these conditions is sufficient. And the outside source, Findlaw, claims that officer recommendation is a factor for VPI selection as well. What is clear though is that “the small core of offenders” enrolled in VPI is anything but small. 2010 saw 2,369 persons on parole selected for VPI.  According to the O’Malley administration this program is responsible for the drop in murders from 2007 to 2010, even if we interpret the numbers here charitably VPI prevented 59 murders in 2010. 

The State of Maryland argues that VPI is an effective program because of the drop in murders since the program’s inception. But consider that in the entire state of Maryland in 2010 there were 426 murders. (State crime report) Giving the State the benefit of the doubt and assuming that each murder was perpetrated by two individuals on VPI, then only 852 people on VPI are responsible for those murders, and therefore 1517 people or 64% are over incorporated.  This is the best case Maryland can make for VPI. It assumes that the only factor at play in the falling murder rate is implementation of VPI, and that every murder has multiple perpetrators who meet VPI criteria. It also assumes that murder is the gold standard when it comes to violent crime. 

If rape is considered in the evaluation of VPI, the program is a failure, because rapes have gone up since VPI was introduced from 1179 in 2007 to 1228 in 2010. The official crime plan says that the drop in murders since the program’s inception “suggest” that VPI is lowering the murder rate, however, there is just as much statistical evidence to suggest that it is increasing the rape rate. Even if VPI is the success its proponents claim it is, the resulting over incorporation would not be a problem, except that erroneously incorporated people in VPI are asked to bear an exceptionally rigorous burden in the name of public safety.
A containment model to effectively manage and supervise those offenders in a community-based setting
The phrase “in a community based setting” conjures an image of a relatively small scale, but effective and custom tailored program designed to serve that community, typically characterized by people reaching out to other people.  Some will disagree over the exact meaning of a community based setting, but the mental gymnastics one has to perform in order to think that VPI is carried out in one are astounding. If people enrolled in VPI make one minor infraction on their parole, a warrant for their arrest is automatically obtained, and cleared no questions asked.

One individual was working and neglected to make one of six weekly phone calls he was required to make.  He was arrested and lost his job as a result.  Aside from forgetting to call his caseworker all indications were that he had completely reformed his life.  He should have made the call, but he shouldn’t lose all the progress he made since getting out of prison because of one missed phone call. Given the automatic nature of the way VPI violation warrants are served, there are likely many more stories like this about people on VPI. DPP has no reason to release its records on this to the public, so we can only hope that they will change their minds or that more individuals on VPI will come forward with their stories.

Henry Loyer, former research intern for the Justice Policy Institute

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