One of Maryland's most vital anti-violence initiatives, the Safe Streets program, is in danger of losing its ability to carry out its mission. Safe Streets is an innovative, community effort to thwart violence through aggressive outreach and a campaign strongly focused on connecting with high-risk youth and young adults in order to diffuse situations and connect them with resources. The program, operated by the Baltimore City Health Department, has played a critical role in reducing violence in the Baltimore community, employing reformed felons as violence interrupters in the same communities that they once called home and operated in. In 2015 alone, these ambassadors for peace diffused 700 conflicts that had the potential of resulting in gun violence. The year prior, the program successfully intervened in over 800 conflicts.
Despite its proven success, it has seen a cut in its operating budget during the administration of Governor Larry Hogan.
Last year, Governor Hogan announced $500,000 in funding for the Safe Streets program, a funding cut of over 50 percent and only enough to allow the program to operate through January 2017. The $500,000 dollar reprieve was supposed to give city leaders time to work with the state to implement a long-term solution, however, it forced the program to operate with great uncertainty on its future, creating a major diversion from its efforts to reduce violence because it must worry about budget constraints. Earlier that month, the governor's office had announced over $80 million dollars in spending cuts; amongst those cuts was the $1 million in funding for the Safe Streets program. Without this funding, many of the centers would have closed by the end of 2016 and the entire program would dissolve by the end of the fiscal year.
Those in opposition of the Hogan administration's efforts to gut the program of its funding have been vocal about their disapproval. Dr. Leana Wen, Commissioner of Health for Baltimore City, called on Governor Hogan to meet with Safe Streets employees and stressed the need to value lives over money, saying, “You can't put a dollar amount on that. We know that this is an effective program, that's the crazy thing."
Fast-forward to 2017, and yet gain Safe Streets found itself teetering towards elimination. After a heated showdown between the city council and Mayor Catherine Pugh, the deal cut redirected $1.5 million to fund the five program locations. This year Governor Hogan has pushed for approximately $68 million in budget cuts. To accomplish this, the administration is looking at reducing aid to some local governments, to colleges, and to the juvenile justice system in addition to eliminating 30 vacant higher education jobs. If that isn’t alarming enough, the largest cut is a 3.6 percent reduction in aid referred to as disparity grants, or aid designated for the state’s less-wealthy jurisdictions. Under this proposal, $6 million will be pulled from that $166 million appropriation. Such a cut would strip Baltimore of a critical $1 million in assistance, a move that could prove devastating in a city that already lacks adequate support from the state for critical programs, including Safe Streets. While the state Board of Public Works approved the $63 million in cuts proposed by Governor Hogan, thankfully the proposal to decrease assistance to local governments by $6 million was discarded. Therefore, the city of Baltimore and Prince Georges County will keep $1 million and $4 million respectively, money that can be used for programs like Safe Streets.
The yearly uncertainty over the future of the program comes as a result of funding from the US Department of Justice and the State of Maryland being inconsistent and unreliable at times, forcing the program to scramble for additional resources. A state-of-the-art program with such promise and a track record of providing positive results should be not only become a permanent expense in the budget, but deserves the unwavering annual support of the local, state and federal government. To put the value of the program into perspective, the costs of treating gunshot victims in Baltimore can run upwards of $72 million annually, while the anti-violence initiative working to decrease gun violence needs roughly 2 percent of that to operate. This year, Safe Streets conducted 876 mediations, 80 percent of which they believe would have led to gun violence.
The Governor’s constant reduction of funds for less-wealthy jurisdictions like Baltimore City is not only financially irresponsible, but unethical. Balancing the state budget by starving these communities of vital funding, specifically for services like disparity grants, promotes socioeconomic inequality and division amongst the state. We must govern our state equally and emphasize a message of togetherness instead of providing additional funds to wealthier cities and municipalities while devastating others.