What is it?
Focused deterrence is an approach to violence reduction that was developed in Boston (USA) in the mid-1990s. It recognises that most serious violence is associated with a small group of people who are themselves very likely to be victims of violence, trauma, and extremely challenging circumstances. Their involvement in violence is often driven by exploitation, victimisation and self-protection. Some versions of focused deterrence, including the original “Boston Ceasefire” intervention of the 1990s, focus primarily on groups rather than individuals.
These approaches recognise that violence is often driven by conflict between groups. If two groups are engaged in violent conflict, focusing on the individuals who have committed violent crimes is unlikely to prevent future conflict between other members in the groups.
Focused deterrence usually includes a combination of the following steps:
- The approach begins by identifying a specific problem – such as knife crime, violent conflict between groups, or drug dealing – as the target for intervention. A dedicated project team is formed which includes the police and law enforcement, social services, and the local community.
- The team combines their knowledge of the selected crime problem and identifies the people involved.
- The team begin to directly and frequently communicate with the people involved in the crime problem. Programmes might start this communication at a ‘call-in’ meeting. The meeting often involves gathering together people from rival conflicting groups, the parents of victims of violence, police and other law enforcement agencies, social services, and community representatives. The team will emphasize that the affected community needs violence to stop and wants those involved to be safe. The team will offer help and access to positive opportunities and services, and make explicit the (sometimes new) consequences that will follow violence.
- The project team continue to develop relationships with the people targeted by the approach. This could involve members of the local community coming together to work out how best to provide support. Or the team could help participants with access to services like education, training, housing, healthcare, and treatment for substance misuse.
- If the people involved do not desist from violence, the project team could enforce sanctions. This could include increased police presence and surveillance, arrest and swift prosecution for minor offences, disruption of illegal money-making activity, or attention to driving transgressions or unpaid fines.
Focused deterrence attempts to identify the people most likely to be involved in violence and support them to desist. The age of the people involved depends on the context and the crime problem identified but projects have worked with children as young as 14 or 15.
For example, the average age of participants in a focused deterrence project in Glasgow was 16.
It combines several core strategies:
- Support. Help for people involved in violence to access positive support and social services.
- Community engagement. Engaging the wider community to communicate that they want violence to stop and those involved to be safe, provide support, and encourage reintegration in the community. Projects will often arrange engagement between the people who are the focus of the intervention and victims’ family members, reformed former group members, and faith leaders.
- Deterrence. Clear communication of the consequences of violence and swift and certain enforcement if violence occurs.
Different focused deterrence models vary in how much they emphasize different stages of this process. Models which emphasize enforcement might focus on using ‘call-in’ meetings to communicate the consequences of violence and taking swift action if the people involved do not desist. Other models might not use ‘call-in’ meetings at all, have minimal emphasis on enforcement, and instead emphasize developing relationships, rehabilitation and early intervention.
There are several potential explanations why focused deterrence could prevent serious crime and violence. The involvement of the community and social services could provide positive routes away from crime and violence. The potential for targeted, swift and certain sanctions might act as a deterrent. The people who are the focus of the approach might not understand the legal consequences of their actions – simply informing them of those realities might have an impact. Finally, collaboration between the community and police could develop relationships and legitimacy, improving the efficacy of future crime prevention activity.
Is it effective?
The research suggests that the average impact of focused deterrence on violent crime is likely to be high.
Our estimate is based on a review of 24 studies which suggests that, on average, focused deterrence strategies reduced crime by 33%. Many of the studies included in this review had a specific focus on violent crime as an outcome. The strongest crime reduction impacts were found in 12 studies on programmes designed to reduce serious violence generated by conflict between groups. Interventions targeting individuals and drug markets had smaller but still positive impacts.
On average, focused deterrence strategies reduced crime by 33%.