Will Deterrence Do It?


by Natasha David-Walker

Pockets of crime have a tendency to form centralized and inter-connected operations in inner city neighborhoods. South-side Chicago, the Bowdoin-Geneva (Dorchester) neighborhood in Boston, and “Vine City” in Atlanta Georgia are all notorious for gang related activity, drug trafficking, and other elements that breed violence and crime.

Over the last two decades, federal, state, and local dollars have been allocated to programs across the country in an attempt to rid these communities of violence that has contributed to general decay, loss of property, and unfortunately loss of life. The return in results per funding of programs has been minimal in many urban areas. According to Sherman, the evaluation processes in the programs are complicated due to inability to maintain controls. “Any attempt to evaluate an internally diverse national funding program is comparable to a pharmacy evaluation.  Even if the right preventative treatments are matched to the right crime risks, a national before-and-after evaluation of a funding stream would lack vital elements of the scientific method. The lack of a control group makes it impossible to eliminate alternative theories about why national-level crime rates changed” (Sherman, Gottfredson, MacKenzie, Eck, Reuter, & Bushway, 1997).

Jonathan Kennedy initiated deterrence-based programs aimed at connecting law enforcement, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations to form coalitions that joined forces to focus on pockets of resistance within communities affected by crime and violence.  Deterrence-based models use group pressure, group support, and substantial communication with persons of influence in the streets, to develop a network of agents who have internal or external vested interest in the targeted community (Dabney, 2013).

Currently, there is a movement working from the ground-level up, to create a comparable coalition in Atlanta that will utilize the deterrence-based model in the Vine City community. Some are cynical about the prospective effort as evidenced by a recent story in the magazine, Atlanta entitled, “It’s Going To Take More Than $45 Million To Help Vine City” (Atlanta, 2013). According to Dean Dabney, guest lecturer in our Violence Inquiry course, correctional approaches for criminals have shifted from varying perspectives for years ranging from rehabilitation strategies to tough on crime policies without substantial results. Advocates of the rehabilitation model argue that there was a failure to properly implement the model. On the other hand, ideologies promoted by conservatives, packaged as “warehouse theories” were cited as largely ineffective. The difference with deterrence-based theory is the concept that “crimes can be prevented when the costs of committing the crime are perceived by the offender to outweigh the benefits” (Braga & Weisburd, 2012).

Deterrence-based programs, considers a strategic offense from an economic premise, where the end result must provide some incentive for the action. Essentially, law enforcement uses offenders and ex-offenders as street agents. The offender is enlisted to work with the coalition to identify perpetrators and provide other useful information for law enforcement, particularly incidences that are related to gang violence.  Dabney relates, gang related violence accounts for the structured connections between drug dealing, assaults, and other criminal actions in most communities. By applying pressure, and breaking up the gang units, crime has been statistically shown to decrease. Initially, I thought the process of enlisting offenders sounded too much like “snitching.” However, the difference with deterrence-based programs is the immediate reward or the immediate weight of federal enforcers. Most community-based programs are not connected with the federal branches of law enforcement on a programmatic level. In the past, the strength of the law depended upon state and local enforcers. With federal agents in the mix, the arm of the law has the capacity to stretch longer, deeper, and wider creating adverse situations for offenders, such as prison-time in cities located multiple states away from home – which reduces the likelihood of visitation. Most offenders are more inclined to cooperate when the cons outweigh the pros.  As a result of the flexed federal arm, the offender usually agrees to function as the point of contact. In other instances people with criminal records who are guilty of lower level offenses receive the full extent of the law rather than the usual minimum sentence in an effort to send a message to other offenders that there is a serious effort on the ground to root out, and eradicate criminal elements in the community.

The deterrence-based model produced results in Boston. Typically duplicating programs with some modifications per the dynamics of the city are successful.  However, working from the inside in, appears to be one of the major roadblocks to accomplishing the goals in Atlanta’s Vine City. For example, one of the difficulties in the establishment of the coalition was determining who to utilize as agents in the slots dedicated for community stakeholders (Dabney, 2013). There also seems to be a general malaise about the derelict conditions in the Vine City area although the deterioration belies the beautifully landscaped sidewalks a few blocks away in downtown Atlanta. According to Atlanta magazine reporter, Rebecca Burns, a drive along Sunset Street “provides an instant snapshot of how impoverished Vine City and English Avenue truly are” (Burns, 2013).  An online source reports, the median income in the Vine City area is $24, 186 compared to the median income of Atlanta residents of $49,981 (City-Data.com, 2013).  “Bleak doesn’t begin to describe it; Third-World is too cheap and easy a label but comes closer” (Burns, 2013).  Although a large part of the debate hinges on the criminal issues, researchers acknowledge that poverty is a major co-factor, the other “usual suspect” in neighborhoods where violence reaches tipping points.

Physicians and practitioners are making a concerted effort to change the way we perceive violence, thus the intention of this course, to draw attention to the connection between health and violence. In fact, Dabney asserted that the presence of Grady Health System’s emergency care is largely responsible for the reduction of human collateral. Without the team of specialized physicians at Grady there would be more funerals.

There are serious efforts in academia to rank violence as a public policy issue and tie the problem more directly to public health. “The public understands the prevention of disease through the concepts of lifestyle choices. Similarly, people have a good understanding of automobile safety and injury prevention when it is logically framed to show cause and effect between seat-belt usage and failure to wear a seat-belt”(Sherman, et al., 1997).  The more we connect the dots between violence and public health, by emphasizing the long-lasting, emotional, physical, mental, financial, and often fatal consequences of violence on society as a whole, and in individual cases; the general public will grow to understand how critical it is to become proactive in efforts to combat violence.  


Sherman, L. Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, D. Eck, J. Reuter, P. Bushway, S. (1997). Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising. A Report to the United States Congress. https://www.ncjrs.gov/works/chapter2.htm

Dabney, D. (2013). Rehabilitation and prevention.  Violence Inquiry Lecture. Emory University: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry. April 22, 2013.

Braga, A. A., Weisburd, D. L., (2012). The effects of focused deterrence strategies on crime: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.  49(30. 323-358.

Burns, R. 2013). It’s Going To Take More Than $45 Million To help Vine City.   Atlanta. March, 13, 2013. http://www.atlantamagazine.com/agenda/2013/03/13/its-going-to-take-more-than-45-million-to-help-vine-city

City-data.com (2013). Vine City neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia (GA), 30314 detailed profile http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Vine-City-Atlanta-GA.html#ixzz2Ral9MqF0


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