We love hearing historical stories about Robin Hood-like men, about bank robbers, pirates and outlaws on the run. Criminals form part of our collective imagination and are part of our origin story. For many Americans, rogue individuals were instrumental in “how the West was won.” But in the present, our empathy for criminals is rarely piqued; unless, of course, we’re watching The Wire or reading about 18th century pirates (and imagining Johnny Depp).
In every day practice, many of us hold a deep fear of criminals — of drug dealers, terrorists and “others” that pose threats to our sense of security, violate our laws and transgress against our moral frameworks. If we look at a criminal from two hundred years ago, we can be blown away by their ingenuity, but if we face them in real life, we see their assets as societal deficits. Why is it that we can honor them when they are gone, but not make use of their talents while they are here?
Quite simply, our fear prevents us from recognizing and finding appropriate channels for the talents of our criminal population. As a result, we have institutionalized a simple formula for dealing with such individuals: capture, punish and isolate.
This formula has become a curse, resulting in an epidemic of incarceration across the United States. In the last thirty years, the U.S. prison population has grown by over 500 percent. Not only does the U.S. lead the world with the highest incarceration rate, nearly one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates have been incarcerated here. Worse, 70 percent of the formerly incarcerated end up back in jail. And the costs of mass incarceration are staggering. It can cost as much as $60,000 a year to house a prisoner, which means the annual cost to taxpayers exceeds $60 billion. Think about the repercussions of investing this money in incarceration instead in our education or healthcare systems.
So how, as a society, do we develop new instincts towards criminals and what strategies can be effectively employed to reduce the rate of incarceration and the rate of recidivism? And relatedly, how do we recognize a black-market innovator who may have all the talent of a Richard Branson or a Jay-Z, but lacks the opportunities for a leg-up in the formal economy? To solve this problem, we first need to recognize the talents of the gangster. A resume from the underground is full of hustle and street skills that aren’t acknowledged by employers. That is to say, given the applied “street smarts” and talent — the art of the hustle, the leadership and prowess of running a drug business — what is it all worth?
Many gangsters are natural born innovators with restricted economic opportunities. Nobody understands this better than Catherine (Cat) Rohr, who quit her job in private equity to become a champion for the incarcerated. As she told us, “Initially I had this attitude that people in prison were the scum of the earth, that they were a waste of tax dollars.” But in getting to know the prison population better, Cat’s position began to change. “I suddenly realized I was meeting entrepreneurs in prison. That these guys who had run drug businesses had all these entrepreneurial characteristics like scrappiness, charisma, and real skills in leadership and management.” With this realization, Cat began a life committed to honoring the talents and skills of those in prison.
As part of this journey, Cat launched a program called Defy Ventures, in New York, that provides a business incubator for ex-offenders who then have an opportunity to compete for $150,000 in seed capital for their businesses. At the core of Cat’s program is a powerful acknowledgement of the skills and talents that former drug dealers and gang leaders possess. From there it’s just a matter of pivoting these street skills into the world of formal entrepreneurship. For many ex-cons, who face discrimination from employers after getting out of prison, Cat’s program offers an MBA-like training matched with exposure to leading entrepreneurs, investors, and potential employers.
Of course, we also need to find ways to stop crimes before they happen. One of the most important interventions we can make on that score — that also relies on changing our stereotypes of criminals — is by treating violence as a contagion, not as an act done by some “bad guy.” One of the biggest plagues on our society is violence. Yet, we too often have discourse around violence where violent individuals are cast as deviants or bad people. Instead, what if we began to treat violence like a disease that is transmitted and spread, much like the common cold?
This is exactly what Dr. Gary Slutkin has been doing with his program Cure Violence. As Gary told us, “Usually problems are stuck, not because we don’t care or there’s not enough money, but because the diagnosis is wrong.” Having spent decades in the field of infectious disease treating things like malaria and tuberculosis, Gary’s journey into transforming violence began as a simple observation: the patterns around violence “outbreaks” are nearly identical to the way that infectious diseases spread. With this insight, Gary sought to transform how we go about treating violence. “The most critical thing is to disrupt the transmission of violence,” Gary told us.
In practice, this led Gary to develop something called “violence interrupters,” which are effectively outreach workers who are called into delicate situations where violence might occur. So, for example, if people in a particular neighborhood hear about a potential retaliatory shooting or a conflict that is brewing between gangs, they can call in violence interrupters who go into the neighborhood and attempt to prevent the violence from being transmitted.
These interrupters are often from the communities where the violent outbreaks are occurring and many of them have been in prison and/or have had their own experiences with violence. As a result, they have a trust and credibility with the communities they work in that allows them to be much more effective than the police force, which often has little ability to intervene in the prevention of violence.
Ultimately, in seeing violence as a public health issue that can be changed through behavioral norms, Cure Violence is throwing away the stigma that people who commit acts of violence are somehow bad or morally depraved. As Gary joked, “You can’t even see bad under the microscope. There is no place in science for the concept of bad or the concept of enemy.”
In both recognizing the talents of these innovators, albeit working in society’s black markets, and transforming our attitude towards individuals who commit such acts of violence, we not only grow our empathy for those that we have cast out but we also begin to distance ourselves from an ineffective economy of punishment that has held sway for far too long.
Originally written for Harvard Business Review.