A new community safety blueprint:

How the federal government can address violence and harm through a public health approach
September 21 2022


All people deserve safety in their homes, workplaces, parks, and other community spaces—safety not only from violence, but from the economic, social, and environmental conditions that fuel violence in the first place. Within the United States, however, access to physical safety—just like access to clean air, economic mobility, and high-quality schools—is shaped by where someone lives, with many of our most unsafe places reflecting decades of systemic disinvestment

To keep individuals, families, and communities truly safe from violence and harm,1 policymakers must tackle the “social determinants of safety” that contribute to neighborhood violence in the first place.2 Just as in public health, where prevention is the most effective way to keep people healthy, preventative safety is the most effective way to maintain public safety. Yet federal spending and policy priorities are not structured to harness this insight—the U.S. government dramatically underspends on programs that are most effective at improving community safety, while allocating billions to punitive programs that harm both families and communities. 

The following blueprint is designed to help federal lawmakers address this mismatch by outlining an evidence-based policy agenda that prioritizes upstream interventions to advance community safety. Given widespread concerns about community violence and harm, as well as the forthcoming expiration of American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) dollars currently funding community safety interventions, it is more essential than ever that the U.S. government build sustainable, flexible, and long-term funding streams for evidence-based safety programs. 

The blueprint begins with an overview of recent crime trends to provide context for thinking about violence as a place-based issue. After establishing this baseline, the blueprint highlights the evidence behind investments that prevent and reduce violence while strengthening communities from the bottom-up. Next, it highlights five categories of federal policy recommendations designed to prevent and reduce violence:  

To illustrate the viability of each recommendation, we also include examples of successfully implemented policy interventions. The blueprint concludes by recasting the affirmative vision for community safety.

Understanding recent crime trends 

There has been much confusion and conjecture regarding recent increases in crime rates. While staying true to the realities that shape public safety within communities, it is important to first acknowledge that crime rates are imperfect measurements of safety. This is, in part, because most crime is never reported, not all police departments report crimes to the federal government, and the kinds of crimes that police track and report are only a small subset of certain categories of crime.  

That being said, police-reported crime rates may provide a snapshot of broad trends. And in looking at these trends, several points become clear. First, the data suggests that the national murder rate increased by nearly 30% during 2020—a phenomenon that occurred in red and blue places and rural and urban areas alike. However, as Table 1 shows, these increases were not uniform across all types of crime. Indeed, many other forms of crime—including property crime, burglary, and robbery—were significantly down. Luckily, early data indicates that increases in violence appeared to slow in 2021.

Second, the rate of murder—the type of “violent crime” that increased the most—remains higher than other comparable countries, but well below historic levels in the United States from the 1980s and 1990s. 

Third, while violence has been dispersed across the nation (urban and rural, red and blue), violence is geographically concentrated within cities—in specific neighborhoods, or even sets of streets within neighborhoods. In particular, communities affected by disinvestment and racial segregation have borne the brunt of violent crime increases, consistent with long-standing research surrounding the spatial concentration of violence. Meanwhile, more affluent areas have had near-record-low levels of murder.  

Figure 1 shows how these patterns appear in Chicago, where, between 2019 and 2020, gun homicide increases were concentrated in the predominantly Black and brown West, South, and Southwest neighborhoods that have long had high levels of gun violence alongside cycles of disinvestment, including historical redlining and present-day bank lending disparities.   

The concentration of violence in disinvested Chicago neighborhoods mirrors other major cities, including Baltimore, Kansas City, Nashville, Tenn., and 13 additional cities for which data on violence outcomes and economic segregation is available. In short, this research underscores that community safety is deeply connected to neighborhood conditions produced by public and private sector disinvestment, particularly in regard to residents’ access to economic opportunity, quality education, stable housing, and health care.  

The evidence on what keeps communities safe

The intersection between place, safety, and opportunity reflects long-standing challenges in America—but also a chance to reconsider how the federal government advances public safety policies. These challenges call for creative, thoughtful responses that center evidence-based investments in communities, rather than backsliding into harshly punitive policies. 

Five categories of evidence-based investments are proven to not only prevent and reduce violence and harm, but also address patterns of geographic inequity that fuel violence and harm in the first place. In this section, we present the evidence on these investments before pivoting to policy recommendations backed by such evidence. 

Category #1: Public health and prevention 

A public health approach to preventing violence can address the structural factors that increase susceptibility to violence, while advancing protective environments that nurture safety, health, and well-being. Areas of investment that are backed by the research evidence include: 

  • Access to health care and treatment: Increasing access to health care, substance use treatment, and mental health treatment is significantly associated with reductions in crime and recidivism. For example, states that expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act saw significant decreases in annual crime rates (both violent crime and property crime) and an annual cost savings of $13 billion two years after the expansion (with the crime reductions most pronounced in counties with previously high uninsured rates). A 2022 study showed more promising results, finding that counties that expanded Medicaid eligibility reduced drug arrests by 25% to 41% and violence-related arrests by 19% to 29% in the three years following expansion. At the state level, expanded access to mental health treatment is associated with reduced violent crime rates. And at the community level, neighborhoods that increased substance use treatment facilities in a geographic area also saw a reduction in violent and financially motivated crimes in the same area. 
  • Community violence intervention: Community violence intervention employs trained professionals to intervene and de-escalate violent conflicts, and provides wraparound services to those who have a high risk of violence. Both “hospital-based community violence intervention” (which reaches violence survivors while they are in a hospital setting, then provides them with case managers and social service providers who offer safety planning, services, and trauma-informed care) and “neighborhood- or street-level violence intervention” (which employs “violence interrupters” or “neighborhood change agents” to de-escalate conflicts, build relationships, provide mentorship, and otherwise promote community safety through nonviolent means) have been associated with reduced re-hospitalization for violent injury and reduced youth involvement in future crime, while also being cost-effective. Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire) is one example of a neighborhood-level violence intervention associated with significantly reducing violence in high-crime neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities where it operates. Another promising model, Advance Peace, contributed to a 20% drop in gun homicides in Stockton, Calif. between 2018 and 2020, and a 22% drop in Sacramento, Calif. between 2018 and 2019. 
  • Civilian crisis response: Nationally, approximately 20% of 911 calls are for mental health or substance use crises. Given that police are often ill-suited to safely and effectively address behavioral health crises, a growing number of jurisdictions are adopting civilian crisis response models that send non-police professionals to respond to 911 calls related to mental health, substance use, and homelessness. A growing body of evidence indicates that these models can be both treatment- and cost-effective. A recent study of the oldest civilian crisis response model, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Ore., found that in 2019, CAHOOTS effectively responded to 17% of city 911 calls while requiring police backup in less than 1% of cases. The program also saved taxpayers an average of $8.5 million in police and emergency department expenditures each year. Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) is another promising model, contributing to a 34% drop in low-level crime since its launch in 2020. 
Category #2: Economic opportunity and housing security 

Neighborhoods with higher poverty, unemployment, and income inequality rates have higher rates of violent crime. But the directionality goes both ways: Evidence demonstrates that by enhancing economic opportunity and reducing segregation within neighborhoods, communities can improve safety outcomes.

  •  Employment and job quality: Youth workforce development and employment programs have been found to reduce youth violent crime arrests by as much 45%, making summer jobs one of the nation’s most effective safety programs. Evidence indicates that this efficacy applies to adults as well. A study of a New Orleans-based job training program, for instance, found that program participants were two-fifths as likely to be arrested as non-participants. A study using data from the U.S. and U.K. found that increasing the availability of well-paying entry-level jobs when a young person is entering the job market may have a lasting impact on diminishing their likelihood of committing future crimes. At the state level, decreasing unemployment is associated with a significant reduction in property crime; in fact, much of the 1990s reduction in property crime has been attributed to the declining unemployment rate. Looking to job quality, even small increases in the minimum wage may have noticeable impacts: Over a three-year period, one study examining how state variation in minimum wages affected recidivism found that re-arrest rates fell by 2.15% for every $0.50 increase. 
  • Financial assistance: Providing direct financial assistance has also been associated with crime reductions. One randomized control trial of men who had been involved in the criminal-legal system found that short-term financial assistance, especially when combined with therapy, dramatically decreased violence and crime for at least a year. Another found that emergency financial assistance for those experiencing economic insecurity in Chicago reduced arrests for violent crimes by 51%. And many studies have demonstrated that cash transfers reduce domestic violence events in particular.  
  • Housing and residential segregation: Substantial evidence shows that investing in housing and reducing socioeconomic segregation within neighborhoods can reduce violence. For instance, increasing access to rental housing in low-income neighborhoods using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits has been found to reduce violent crime. Permanent housing subsidies have also been associated with reduced rates of intimate partner violence. So too have efforts to reduce neighborhood foreclosures and vacancies been found to significantly reduce crime. For example, one Philadelphia-based program that provided low-income homeowners with $20,000 to fund structural repairs to their homes contributed to a 21.9% decrease in homicides and a total crime reduction of 25%.  
Category #3: Youth development and education

Investing in youth—whether through school programs, early childhood programs, mentorship, or other interventions—is one of the most impactful ways that policymakers can support long-term community safety. Indeed, research identifies “emerging adulthood” as a critical time to intervene positively to prevent future violence and increased criminal-legal involvement over a lifetime. 

  • Youth employment and skills training: Evidence shows that youth workforce development and employment programs can reduce involvement in violent crime by as much as 45%. Moreover, providing summer jobs for youth may lower violence not only during the period of employment, but also in the months and years after, making these programs effective both as short- and long-term interventions. 
  • Youth programming: Programs to support students’ social and emotional well-being have been found to reduce total arrests by as much as 35%, violent crime arrests by as much as 50%, and youth recidivism by 21%. Youth-focused sports and therapy programming can halve future arrests for a violent crime. High-quality after-school programs can reduce drug use and decrease arrests and other criminal-legal involvement among children. And these benefits begin early, with both early childhood intervention programs and nutrition programs for newborns being found to reduce crime.  
  • High-quality education and school-based violence prevention: Increased educational attainment may reduce the rate of future incarceration by 16%. Improving school quality and programming shows similarly positive results. One recent study conducted in Michigan showed that increased spending on low-income schools decreased adult crime rates so substantially that the spending saved the state money overall. And a systematic review of 53 studies found that school-based violence prevention programs—which teach students communication, problem-solving, empathy, and conflict management skills—are associated with reducing violent behavior at all grade levels
Category #4: Built environment and community spaces 

Given the spatial concentration of violence within cities and towns, strategies focused on alleviating neighborhood distress can significantly reduce crime. Research indicates that by implementing built environment improvements—including fixing abandoned buildings, increasing access to parks, and improving lighting and other aspects of the public realm—cities and towns can significantly reduce violence.  

  • Green spaces and transforming vacant spaces: Numerous studies have found that renovating vacant buildings, land, and lots in disinvested communities reduces violent crime rates. In Philadelphia, researchers found transforming and cleaning vacant lots in high-poverty neighborhoods led to a 29% reduction in violent crime. Another Philadelphia-based project to remediate abandoned homes was associated with a 39% reduction in firearm assaults and, given the low remodeling cost, returned hundreds of dollars for every dollar invested. Evidence has found that other improvements to the public realm—such as urban greening programs—reduce violent crime, particularly adolescent gun violence. In one Philadelphia neighborhood, a population-based, case-controlled study conducted between 2008 and 2014 found that the presence of street lighting, painted sidewalks, public transportation, and parks was associated with at least 76% decreased odds of a homicide.  
  • Neighborhood-led projects and “third spaces”: Centering community leadership in neighborhood improvement projects offers additional safety dividends. In Seattle, a program that provides matching funds to community organizations for neighborhood improvement projects substantially decreased violent crime, especially in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Increasing community spaces for informal, neighbor-to-neighbor contact is also linked to community members feeling safer. These findings speak broadly to how important “third places”—such as parks, cafes, and community centers—are for achieving safety goals, especially within areas that disproportionately lack access to third places.  
Category #5: Institutional transformation 

Nearly every community-based safety intervention outlined in this brief requires the leadership of community-based organizations. These organizations have long been testing alternative, bottom-up solutions to safety—especially in disinvested neighborhoods. However, the community infrastructure and institutions needed to stabilize communities are routinely underfunded.  

  • Enhancing the capacity of community-based organizations: Research shows that investments in place-based nonprofit organizations can significantly affect how safe a community is. In fact, sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that in any given city with at least 100,000 residents, every community organization dedicated to building stronger neighborhoods and confronting violence led to approximately a 1% drop in violent crime and murder. Research also shows that community-based organizations dedicated to fostering collective efficacy and social cohesion can fuel crime reductions, and that these organizations are most effective when they have geographic and cultural ties to specific neighborhoods. However, community groups—particularly Black- and brown-led organizations—are disadvantaged in accessing federal funds, often because federal grant structures are difficult to navigate and require “technical expertise, cash flow, and personnel.” 
  • Civilian agencies dedicated to community safety: Recognizing the multidisciplinary nature of community safety, some cities have created civilian “community safety agencies” or “neighborhood safety offices” whose purpose is to fund, research, and coordinate interdepartmental work on non-carceral safety. Richmond, Calif. was one of the first U.S. cities to create an Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) in 2007. According to a Center for American Progress report, roughly a dozen other cities have since created ONSs. Data on these institutions’ effectiveness is still emerging, but outcomes from Richmond are promising; research associates the city’s ONS with a 55% reduction in gun homicides and a 43% reduction in firearm-related crimes.  

Across all five categories above, each community safety intervention is not only backed by research; each is also supported by public opinion. The Vera Institute of Justice recently conducted a national poll of 4,000 voters spanning the political spectrum, oversampling in the most politically diverse states. The results, presented in Figure 2, show that jobs, housing, community infrastructure, and schools are the top factors when asked what contributes to safety. 

These findings are consistent with other survey data, such as a recent Alliance for Safety and Justice national survey of crime survivors, which found that 60% of survivors prefer prevention and rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Taken together, these results indicate that public opinion is shifting in a direction that follows the evidence: Americans increasingly prefer preventative safety investments that work—such as jobs, housing, and community investment—over punitive approaches.  

A new blueprint to advance community safety through evidence-based policies

The federal government has a critical opportunity to follow this evidence and enact policies aimed at stopping violence and harm before they happen. In particular, the federal government can leverage its capacity as a funder to enable innovative pilots, scale successful interventions, and utilize its interagency expertise to provide guidance and evaluation support. The following section offers 16 evidence-based policy recommendations that are aligned with this vision, organized by the categories of evidence explained above. 

Public health and prevention policy recommendations 

1. Create sustainable funding streams for community violence intervention programs: The federal government could more effectively prevent violence by creating long-term funding streams that support evidence-based community violence intervention (CVI) programs—both the hospital-based and community-centered models. Many CVI models have expanded in the past year, largely by leveraging flexible “fiscal recovery funds” in the American Rescue Plan (detailed further in this Civil Rights Corps guide). However, in a recent Brookings report, CVI practitioners expressed concerns about how they can continue their life-saving violence interruption work after those dollars are spent. Moreover, other studies indicate that ARP funds have predominantly not been used for these purposes, comprising only 0.14% of the first funding tranche. In short, Congress should prioritize targeted and dedicated investments in these programs, as well as continual and long-term investments that are more than sporadic reactions to violence upticks. While the Biden administration has proposed $500 million for CVI in its FY23 budget, this request is still far less than needed to meet existing demand. 

The federal government could advance CVI priorities in a few ways. It could fulfill the White House FY23 CVI budget request and bolster existing funds (such as the Preventing Violence Affecting Young Lives grant) that are already providing critical dollars for this work. To meet growing demand and ensure that violence interrupters are paid living wages that allow them to continue their work, the government should also build targeted, sustainable, and robust CVI funding streams overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rather than the Department of Justice. Making this administrative switch underscores the fact that the HHS has the employees, resources, and institutional orientation necessary to expand CVI programs reflective of the public health approach to safety so key to effective violence prevention. 

Case study: Trauma Recovery Center Network (Ohio) 

In 2017, Ohio allocated $2.6 million of its Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding to create a Trauma Recovery Center Network, which helped hospitals and community-based organizations provide wraparound services to traditionally underserved victims (including victims of gun violence) with supports such as short-term safe housing, legal advocacy, substance use treatment, mental health counseling, and essentials like food and clothing. Then attorney general and current Republican Governor Mike DeWine made Ohio the second state in the nation to adopt this model (after California in 2001), and current Attorney General Dave Yost has grown it so that Ohio has the second-highest number of trauma recovery centers in the nation. According to the Alliance for Safety and Justice, trauma recovery centers are both treatment- and cost-effective models for reaching underserved crime victims such as people experiencing street violence, younger victims, people who are homeless, LGBTQ+ victims, and communities of color. There are now more than 40 trauma recovery centers across the country. 

2. Scale civilian crisis response models: Given promising early outcome data from civilian crisis response models in places such as Oregon and Denver, the federal government should consider providing competitive grants to scale these models nationwide while embedding an evaluation component to further measure the associated success and cost savings. In designing grants, Congress should take care to not only prioritize crisis response models that provide an alternative to low-level offenses (such as substance use or homelessness), but also include models that address intimate partner violence—another area where trained professionals can avoid a substantial amount of harm and criminal-legal entanglement. While the federal government has made significant strides in improving crisis response supports—including through the new Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 988, and its Qualifying Community-Based Mobile Crisis Intervention Services program—establishing more targeted grants could help jurisdictions pilot and scale the most successful of these non-carceral models while expanding the evidence base on what works. 

Case study: Person in Crisis Team (Rochester, N.Y.) 

In September 2020, Rochester, N.Y. created a new Office of Crisis Intervention Services, housed within the Department of Recreation and Human Services, to be a non-law-enforcement, comprehensive community response to homicides, domestic violence, and mental health crises. The office was funded by the transfer of $681,100 from the Rochester Police Department’s budget and $300,000 from the city’s Contingency Budget. In January 2021, the office launched the Person in Crisis (PIC) Team to divert mental health calls and connect residents in crisis with social workers trained in emergency response. To access the PIC Team, residents call “211” instead of “911.” Calls are routed through the Goodwill of the Finger Lakes 211 Life Line call center to provide a 24/7 response to residents of all Rochester ZIP codes. Monthly service reporting and outcomes can be found here.  

3. Increase funding for community health clinics, trauma recovery centers, and community health workers: Given the extensive evidence on how health care and treatment access can significantly reduce crime, the federal government should consider increasing funding for clinics, community health workers, and training and workforce development for health care professionals—particularly in lower-income census tracts. There are many vehicles through which they could do so, including: 

  • Providing dedicated support for Trauma Recovery Centers
  • Expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to cover public health workers, so that loan debt is not a disincentive to take these critical jobs 
  • Creating a new AmeriCorps program that funds health workers in target jurisdictions
  • Increasing the Health Resources and Services Administration budget for health care workforce development training 
  • Creating new grant programs that specifically fund community health workers

Perhaps most importantly, the federal government could increase health care access by further incentivizing Medicaid expansion or expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (and other targeted programs) and Medicare.  

Economic opportunity and housing security policy recommendations

4. Expand access to workforce development and employment programs: Given the connection between unemployment and crime, Congress could advance community safety by prioritizing investments to improve employment outcomes, particularly for low-income Black, brown, and other marginalized communities. To do so, lawmakers may consider piloting a “jobs guarantee” program that could fund different models in different jurisdictions while embedding an evaluation component to determine which approaches are most effective. Lawmakers could also fund programs like a Civilian Jobs Corps, which could also help governments rebuild their workforce and provide stability for vulnerable workers during economic downturns. Additionally, lawmakers could consider increasing targeted funding for workforce development programs for people who have previously been incarcerated or are at high risk of incarceration, while deploying the wraparound and holistic supports most effective at ensuring participant success.  

Case study: West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (Philadelphia) 

The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) is a place-based workforce development program that has been operating for over 10 years, providing year-round, cohort-based, jobs-driven training models to connect residents to good-paying jobs. While the program has not traditionally been conceived of as a “crime-fighting” intervention, the Pew Charitable Trusts recently awarded the WPSI with a $3.5 million grant as part of a larger gun violence prevention investment. This investment recognizes the intersection between economic opportunity and crime prevention, with the WSPI’s president recently telling The Philadelphia Tribune that addressing poverty through good-paying jobs is key to solving gun violence. WSPI has a proven track record of connecting vulnerable residents to jobs (with 83% of participants retaining employment for over 12 months), and the new investment will enable them to connect an additional 2,500 unemployed or under-employed city residents to jobs.  

5. Fund summer jobs for youth: Given the strong connection between youth employment and safety, many cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., have citywide youth summer employment programs. The federal government could bolster these programs by creating dedicated funding streams that help cities and states launch initiatives in this space, and could even prioritize applicants that combine jobs programs with other activities that advance safety goals, such as park restoration, clean energy, weatherization, and refurbishing vacant lots.  

Case study: Summer youth employment programs (Boston) 

The city of Boston operates a number of summer youth employment programs through its Youth Engagement and Employment office. A 2018 Brookings study found that participants of Boston’s summer youth programs were 35% less likely to be charged with a violent crime in the 17 months following the intervention.  

6. Fund targeted cash assistance programs for harm survivors: Building on the research that connects financial security and safety (particularly cash transfers to domestic violence survivors), Congress should consider expanding programs that provide financial assistance to survivors of harm. These programs can help survivors of harm (including gun violence) achieve financial security and avoid precarious circumstances that increase their chances of criminal-legal entanglement.  

Case study: Temporary Assistance for Domestic Violence Survivors (Oregon) 

The Temporary Assistance for Domestic Violence Survivors program in Oregon allows eligible survivors to receive grants of up to $1,200 for crisis-related needs. Ninety days after receiving the first grant, survivors may reapply for additional money. The eligibility requirements include: identifying as a survivor of domestic violence; being a parent or caregiver of a minor child or a pregnant person; and being a resident of Oregon (applicants may also be temporary residents of Oregon for reasons such as safety, or be undocumented residents). 

7. Expand economic opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals: Given that 40% of all formerly incarcerated individuals are unable to find work (which contributes to poverty for those who have been in prison) and many more face severe discrimination when accessing housing, education, and other vital resources, supporting the economic success of formerly incarcerated individuals is a critical community safety priority. Evidence shows that economic empowerment, paired with other supports, can reduce recidivism. To this end, using the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and other Labor Department programs, Congress could create and expand grant programs that specifically work to employ formerly incarcerated people, including by providing education, job training, and entrepreneurship support, like Aspire in Washington, D.C. Congress could also consider providing direct financial assistance to help these individuals as they search for employment following incarceration, as well as removing existing barriers that prevent this community from accessing Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, and other life-saving programs.   

Case study: Community Love Fund Guaranteed Income Initiative (Boston)

The Community Love Fund is a landmark income initiative that distributes recurring, direct cash relief to formerly incarcerated women in the Roxbury community for one year. This guaranteed income initiative pilot, co-created by Families for Justice as Healing and the National Council, is the first of its kind in Boston. 

8. Expand access to housing through eviction defense, vouchers, and alternative real estate models: Following the evidence on housing security and safety, Congress could enhance funding for programs that provide eviction defense, housing vouchers, emergency housing, and programs for “permanent supportive housing.” Congress could achieve these goals by expanding housing subsidies or supplementing incomes through the Earned Income Tax Credit to help families pay rent. It could also increase funding for existing programs such as the Eviction Protection Grant Program, while creating new grants that support the ability for jurisdictions to provide permanent supportive housing. While making these changes, Congress should keep in mind the formerly incarcerated community—a population that is both extremely vulnerable to housing insecurity and frequently subject to statutory bars that prevent them from accessing public housing—and enact reforms to address these barriers.  

In addition, Congress could incentivize localities to increase their overall housing supply. Specifically, they could support alternative real estate models such as community land trusts, which can increase the availability of affordable housing while letting community members share and retain ownership. (See this Brookings report for guidance on how they could do so.) Congress could also incentivize the removal of zoning barriers, including racially biased exclusionary zoning laws, which further depress the creation of new housing stock. 

Case study: Housing First model (Los Angeles)

In 2016, the California State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1380, which required all housing programs to adopt the Housing First model. Housing First programs provide housing assistance without any preconditions for people experiencing homelessness. A 2022 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that in Los Angeles County, Housing First assistance reduced participants’ probability of being jailed within 18 months by 95%, and reduced the probability of receiving a criminal charge by 85%.

Case study: Permanent supportive housing for formerly incarcerated people 

Permanent supportive housing (PSH) combines stable, affordable housing with wraparound services. For example, PSH for people recently released from prison provides employment support, counseling, and other vital reentry services, and has been found to reduce re-arrest rates by 40% and re-incarceration by 61% in the year following release. Alongside its safety benefits, PSH is a cost-effective financial investment. In the long run, governments recoup a large share of the upfront costs through reduced health care, short-term shelter, and criminalization expenses. In New York, reduced service use yielded annualized savings of $16,282 per housing unit, equal to 95% of the supportive housing costs. In Portland, Ore., savings were even more extreme, with the government saving $15,000 per unit.  

Youth development and education policy recommendations 

9. Create a grant program to fund local youth violence prevention plans: One key mechanism for expanding public health and prevention entails supporting multidisciplinary plans that target certain high-risk groups, including youth. In Minneapolis, for example, the Blueprint for Action to Prevent Youth Violence was associated with a 43% reduction in violent crime in its first two years. Congress could create a grant program that funds jurisdictions to create and implement similar plans and incentivize youth engagement and leadership when doing so.  

10. Increasing resources for low-income schools: One way to follow the evidence surrounding youth programs, high-quality education, and mentorship is to increase resources for school-based counselors, social-emotional learning programs, wraparound supports, and school funding in general. These supports—especially when paired with efforts to reduce the presence of school resource officers—can reduce youth arrests and other criminal-legal involvement. 

The federal government could achieve this goal in several ways, including by expanding Title I funding and making it mandatory as well as by prioritizing school quality and holistic services within the lowest-income census tracts (including by enhancing funding for Promise Neighborhoods, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and Full-Service Community Schools). Moreover, lawmakers could enact new grants that facilitate “community schools” programming such as counselors, psychiatrists, mentorship, and peer supports  

Case study: Redesigning school safety (Phoenix)

In summer 2020, the Phoenix Union High School District ended its contract with the Phoenix Police Department for school resource officers for three years, then reallocated $1.2 million to participatory processes that will solicit ideas for alternative school safety investments; $500,000 will be allocated for a staff-driven process, $500,000 to a student-driven process, and $200,000 to a parent-driven process.

11. Fund youth centers, sports, enrichment activities, and neighborhood-based wraparound support programs. Although schools are critical resources for providing youth programming, community safety also requires programming in out-of-school environments to keep youth safe while decreasing their chances of criminal-legal involvement.  

Building on this insight, Congress could create a new grant program that funds out-of-school programming and community infrastructure for youth, such as youth and community centers or programs in sports, art, music, drama, and related activities—including provisions that make these programs free or free to students who could not otherwise participate. Congress could also create a grant specifically for coordinating and implementing place-based, youth-focused opportunity programs, which knit together a range of nonprofit programs and social services using a collective action framework. 

Case study: Parramore Kidz Zone (Orlando, Fla.)

The mission of the Parramore Kidz Zone (PKZ) in Orlando, Fla. is to level the playing field for the neighborhood’s children using investments such as high-quality early childhood education, after-school programs, family economic success programs, youth development programs, access to health care, mentoring, tutoring, college access assistance, and more. A study of the PKZ found that it contributed to a 61% decline in juvenile arrests, a 56% decline in teen pregnancies, and a 38% decline in child abuse cases. 

Built environment and community spaces policy recommendations

12. Increase grant funding for place-based neighborhood improvement projects: Congress currently has funding mechanisms for neighborhood improvement projects, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grants, which provide essential funds for built environment improvements. Unfortunately, these funds do not have specific “safety” outcomes in mind, nor do they exist at the scale needed to implement the extent of necessary neighborhood improvement projects in high-crime areas. Moreover, none of these programs have the participatory requirements needed to maximize social capital benefits. 

Following the evidence on how built environment improvements and other neighborhood projects reduce violence, Congress should create a new program at HUD that supports community members, particularly those directly impacted by violence and harm, in developing and implementing place-based project plans that will transform community spaces—including vacant or underutilized lands—to maximize community safety. Moreover, given the promising evidence behind community-led safety strategies, Congress should require that these funds be allocated locally using community-driven processes like participatory budgeting.  

Case study: Clean and Green program (Flint, Mich.)

In Flint, Mich., neighborhoods that participated in the Clean and Green program—in which community members cleaned and maintained vacant lots—saw 40%  fewer assaults and violent crimes than neighborhoods that did not participate.  

13. Provide grants for participatory budgeting programs: Given the evidence behind community-led safety strategies (particularly those championed by trusted local organizations that are rooted in communities), there has been growing interest in using “participatory budgeting” to determine safety investments. The federal government should respond to this growing interest and evidence by establishing a grant fund that provides sustainable funding to qualified community-rooted organizations in high-violence communities to lead participatory budgeting processes. They should embed evaluation components within this funding to improve the evidence base on participatory budgeting for community safety. 

Case study: Oakland Unite (Oakland, Calif.)

In Oakland, Calif., voters passed Measure Z, which funds Oakland Unite, a local collaborative within the city’s Human Services Department that oversees the restructuring of the city’s disbursement of public safety funds using community-driven processes. They work with youth and young adults with the highest risks of violence, using collaborative strategies such as street outreach and case management, non-carceral crisis response, advocacy and case management for victims of crime, re-entry programs, and services for young children exposed to trauma and domestic/community violence.   

Institutional transformation policy recommendations

14. Provide sustainable and accessible funding for grassroots organizations: As Congress expands funding for community safety programs, it should prioritize reaching and funding organizations that have already been doing this work—many of which are lower-capacity, grassroots-level organizations. One way to do so would be to fund technical assistance programs for grassroots, community-based organizations to navigate federal reporting requirements or provide funding for these organizations to hire consultants to assist with evaluation and reporting requirements. In addition, offices of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships housed in various federal agencies (including the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development) could also receive funding to help local organizations with grant access and capacity-building, ensuring that funding flows to a wider array of effective organizations.  

Case study: Innovation in Community Safety grant program (Minnesota) 

As part of its allocation of ARP funds, Minnesota state leaders dispersed $5 million toward a new Innovation in Community Safety grant program, which will provide local organizations in targeted neighborhoods with up to $1 million for community safety programming, prioritizing areas with the highest rates of violent crime. The state made another $2.5 million available through Violence Intervention Grants, with a maximum per-grant amount of $250,000. These grants were designed to have a more equitable distribution of applicants, with a fiscal agent administering smaller funding amounts more quickly to grassroots organizations. For more information, see this Brookings report.   

15. Create a community safety division at the Department of Health and Human Services: As Congress expands investments in community safety, these new programs should be administered by a non-carceral agency that is dedicated to prevention-oriented public health and safety. This can be done by creating a new division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) dedicated to non-carceral safety approaches, which could oversee grants, fund research, and coordinate inter-agency work on prevention-oriented safety programs. Moreover, this agency could provide increased funding to local community safety agencies such as Offices of Neighborhood Safety or offices dedicated to supporting non-carceral survivor safety programming. Cities that have developed such central agencies (including Richmond, Calif. and Albuquerque, N.M.), demonstrate that they are critical to scaling and sustaining community-led safety approaches. Having such a division at the federal level could not only achieve the same successes, but also serve as an effective example to other states and localities.  

Case study: Community Safety Department (Albuquerque, N.M.)

In 2021, Albuquerque, N.M. became the first city in the nation to create a cabinet-level agency designed to provide a non-law-enforcement response to incidents involving homelessness, mental health, and substance use. The agency, Albuquerque Community Safety department, has responded to 10,909 calls for service as of June 2022, and it releases monthly reporting on its service outcomes.  

16. Fund additional research on the social determinants of safety. Although this brief presents evidence on the power of preventative safety, additional research is necessary to help communities understand what works best to keep their residents safe. Congress has only recently resumed funding research on gun violence at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health after a two-decade ban, but the current level of funding is far less than what is needed to support multiyear research projects. Congress should increase this funding, especially for prevention-oriented safety research, including work on violence interruption, non-carceral crisis response, the built environment, education and youth programs, housing, treatment, and employment. 

Looking ahead: Shifting our paradigm one policy at a time

This report offers a policy blueprint for federal lawmakers to follow in order to keep individuals, families, and communities genuinely safe—namely, by addressing the underlying factors that drive violence and harm. This public health approach to safety will not only reduce the harms of punitive approaches, but also will create structures that address all of our multifaceted safety needs. 

Moving forward, adopting these preventative and community-centered solutions represents a first step toward addressing our place-based safety and opportunity gaps, as well as for giving all communities the safety that they deserve. 


The authors thank the following experts for their contributions to and reviews of various drafts of the piece: Monifa Bandele (Movement for Black Lives), Sana Chehimi (Prevention Institute), Ames Grawert (Brennan Center for Justice), Leah Sakala (Alliance for Safety and Justice), and Jennifer S. Vey (Brookings Institution).  

About the Authors

Thea Sebastian

Thea Sebastian

Director of Policy – Civil Rights Corps
Hanna Love

Hanna Love

Research Associate – Brookings Metro
Sam Washington

Sam Washington

Policy Associate – Civil Rights Corps
Anthony Barr

Anthony Barr

Senior Research Assistant – Brookings Metro
Insha Rahman

Insha Rahman

Vice President – Vera Institute of Justice
Blake Paradis

Blake Paradis

Senior Federal Policy Associate – Vera Institute of Justice
Andre M. Perry

Andre M. Perry

Senior Fellow – Brookings Metro
Sakira Cook

Sakira Cook

Co-Interim Vice President – Color of Change
  1. Although safety is often associated specifically with physical violence (with violence usually measured using crime rates), our understanding of safety takes a broader view—one that encompasses other forms of harm that threaten individuals, families, and communities. For this reason, we often say “violence and harm” in this document.
  1. The “social determinants of safety” is a term that Civil Rights Corps and the Brookings Institution have used to describe the root causes that drive individual and community safety. For more information, see this one-pager by Civil Rights Corps and this op-ed by the Brookings Institution.