Wednesday 4 November 2009

A Different Type of Lateral Thinking

I've heard a lot said about lateral, blue sky and out of the box thinking, but rarely seen it put into action.

The Economist reports on an project in High Point, North Carolina designed to make a rough neighbourhood liveable in again. By adopting a new and alternative strategy, they have been able to make a difference.

The area had been taken over by drug dealers and the police department standard reaction was to come in once in a while like an invading army, grab the dealers and leave again. While this shut down drug dealing for a couple of hours, it did poisoned communutity relations
But then they tried something different. On the advice of David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, they started talking to community leaders in West End. They found out who the street drug-dealers were. There were fewer than they had expected: only 16, of whom three were habitually violent. Patiently, they compiled dossiers on each of them. Then they arrested and prosecuted the violent ones, and invited the rest in for a chat.

The young dealers were shown the evidence against them, and given a choice. If they stopped dealing drugs and carrying guns, they would not be prosecuted. A “community co-ordinator” sat down with each of them and asked him what he needed to go straight: a job? Drug treatment? A place to stay? An alarm clock to get to work on time? The community promised to help with all these things. The dealers’ neighbours and even grandmothers stood up and told them that what they were doing was wrong, and had to stop. Then prosecutors warned them that if they did not stop that day, they would be sent to jail, possibly for the rest of their lives.

It worked. Nearly all the dealers reformed, bar the odd bit of shoplifting. You can still buy drugs behind closed doors in High Point, but the intervention was never about drugs. It was about making the neighbourhood liveable again. Fears that the open-air drug market would simply move elsewhere proved unfounded. As the same technique was tried in other neighbourhoods and for other types of crime, such as gang-related muggings, the city’s overall violent crime rate fell noticeably, from 8.7 per 1,000 people in 2003 to 7.3 in 2008.

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