San Francisco has a new plan to stem a recent surge in deadly shootings: pay potential shooters. That’s the principle behind the city’s new Dream Keeper Fellowship, which will enroll 30 individuals deemed at high risk of shooting or being shot and pay them a $300 monthly stipend. They can collect an additional $200 per month for completing such milestones as taking job interviews, complying with probation, or meeting with the life coach assigned to them.

The program has a certain logic. Crime is a highly concentrated phenomenon: in San Francisco, police analysis has found that just 12 criminal gangs are the major drivers of shootings. If incentives work, then paying people not to shoot could conceivably drive down crime.

But evidence is far from conclusive that such programs work. Research conducted on a similar program in neighboring Richmond claimed to find large effects on violence. But it did so using a “synthetic control,” in effect combining data from jurisdictions similar to Richmond to create a “synthetic” comparison city. That method entailed comparing the crime statistics of large areas in order to discern the effect of a program on just 30 people, suggesting that any finding was likely just statistical noise. And it produced the counterintuitive finding that Richmond’s fellowship pushed non-firearm violence up—a sign that the program didn’t actually cause the positive result on firearms.

In general, programs like San Francisco’s resemble “focused deterrence” methods, in which high-risk individuals meet with police and community stakeholders and are offered ways out of violence, but are told to stop engaging in it or face serious consequences. Some experts are skeptical that focused deterrence is well-supported by evidence, and San Francisco’s approach lacks a stick to complement its carrot. Moreover, focused deterrence and similar fellowships usually tie payouts to completion of explicit goals. San Francisco’s offers an unconditional cash transfer—a payment with no strings attached.

Even if San Francisco’s approach does work, we should be clear about what city officials are proposing to do: use limited public funds to pay thousands of dollars a year to those considered likely perpetrators of violence in their city—a group which likely includes some of San Francisco’s most violent felons. Sheryl Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, told the San Francisco Examiner that $6,000 a year is a far better deal financially compared with the cost of incarcerating these individuals. Such arguments invoke what writer Helen Andrews once called “bloodless moralism”: an insistence that “moral questions are . . . merely empirical,” paired with an unwillingness to make “moral claims on moral grounds.” If we can pay people not to shoot each other, Davis seems to say, isn’t that more cost-effective than incarceration?

Regardless, we shouldn’t pay people specifically for their willingness to refrain from deadly violence—any more than we should pay them for not selling drugs or abusing their children. San Franciscans should be up in arms: public dollars that could be spent on their schools or roads or to clean up the city’s piles of trash are being handed out instead as a form of protection money.

Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images


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