Homicides have increased in Philadelphia in four of the last five years -- culminating with 353 homicides in 2018. This has led to a reemergence of the troubling “Killadelphia” nickname, which seemed to have been retired when homicides began declining a few years ago. In 2013, the city experienced 85 fewer homicides than the year before -- about a 26 percent decrease. According to data from the FBI, that year, homicide rates went down by 15 percent on average in large cities.

Some attribute the decrease in Philadelphia homicides in part to a collaborative effort called Focused Deterrence that started here in the spring of 2013 and ended a few years later. Other cities have seen a decline in homicide rates using the strategy.

State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell -- who was involved in Focused Deterrence in 2013 and worked in District Attorney’s Larry Krasner administration -- is working with the Mayor’s Office and the DA’s Office to relaunch the program. It’s worth trying.

The foundation of Focused Deterrence is that violence is concentrated among a small number of people who are connected to one another through an informal network. These (usually black) young men are at high risk to both shoot and be shot. To break the cycle of violence, the entire group needs to change its behavior. Focused Deterrence identifies those most at risk, threatens collective enforcement if violence continues, and also offers social services and jobs.

Enforcement actions could be traditional -- incarceration and higher bail -- or less traditional -- enforcement of unpaid fines and cracking down on utility theft.

In 2013, Philadelphia conducted a two-year pilot of Focused Deterrence with members of South Philly gangs. Researchers from Temple University found that compared with the two years before the pilot, there was a 35 percent reduction in shootings in South Philadelphia.

The program continued beyond the pilot but fizzled out when the city’s investment in it declined. By the time DA Krasner came into office in January 2018, there hadn’t been outreach to at-risk individuals. In September 2017, the director of social services for Focused Deterrence parted ways with the city because of criticism that the carrot side of the equation existed only on paper. As a part of the staff shake-up in the beginning of his administration, Krasner let go of the head of the Gun Violence Task Force, who was also the DA’s point person in the South Philly effort. That was the final nail in the coffin of the mostly dead Focused Deterrence.

Krasner says he supports Focused Deterrence if there is a true investment in the “carrot” side. The Managing Director’s Office is optimistic that the state, City Hall, and the DA’s Office will work out the details. David Kennedy, a criminologist considered the father of Focused Deterrence, is advising the process.

There is a real opportunity to get Focused Deterrence running again -- and to get it right so that the impacts will be long term. Three things to consider before the relaunch:

  • In 2013, Philadelphia used gang affiliation as a proxy for risk. However, Kennedy insists that Focused Deterrence is not an anti-gang program. There are gang members who are not high risk for violence and people who are high risk but are not members of gangs. Identification of high risk should be done on an individual level and not by casting a wide net.
  • There has to be a much more robust investment in the social services offered to the target population. Last time around, the jobs that Focused Deterrence had to offer were 90-day jobs at Goodwill. Those most at risk need pathways to a different lifestyle, something that goes far beyond a temporary low-wage job and maybe a GED.
  • A step toward ensuring that Focused Deterrence doesn’t become a program of only aggressive enforcement is to house it outside of law enforcement -- for example, under the Office of Violence Prevention. The base of the program should be closer to human services than to jails.

As the body count rises, city leaders should explore every possible solution. Focused Deterrence should be on the table. The city has to make sure that it implements it effectively and without erasing the progress that Philadelphia has made on criminal justice reform in the last few years.