Addressing an Ongoing Epidemic of Gun Violence

March 2022 / Issue Briefs / Criminal Justice & Addiction
Photo of courthouse in Baltimore.

Nine out of 10 homicides in Baltimore are committed with firearms. In 2021, Baltimore had 337 homicides, and there were 726 non-fatal shootings. The root causes of violence are complex and include generational trauma; structural racism; denials of opportunity; and systemic underinvestment in our state’s youth, families, and communities. Baltimore City is engaged in important conversations about re-imagining policing and public safety strategies based on public health and prevention, rather than solely enforcement and incarceration. Gun violence prevention efforts have shifted from zero-tolerance policing to more focused and balanced strategies that leverage not just the police but also social service and public health agencies, as well as community residents.

The Abell Foundation invests in community-based violence intervention and prevention organizations, cognitive behavioral therapy programs targeting those most at-risk, and hospital-based violence intervention programs. Here, we highlight three such programs:


Group Violence Reduction Strategy

The Center on Crime and Criminal Resilience (CCR) at Northeastern University has partnered with Baltimore City to implement the Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS) based on the “focused deterrence” model. The GVRS program utilizes call-in meetings, where members of violent groups hear from law enforcement, social service organizations, and community members that the violence must stop. Law enforcement conveys the strong message that if violence continues, the perpetrators will be caught and face consequences. Individuals seeking help are connected to social services, including counseling, education programs, and employment opportunities.

The Abell Foundation provided a grant of $200,000 toward a technical assistance package to support all aspects of planning, implementation, and evaluation of the GVRS strategy. The technical assistance team, which will have Baltimore-based staff, will be led by Dr. Anthony Braga of Northeastern University. Dr. Braga has over 25 years of experience in researching and implementing violence-reduction programs. Technical assistance will ensure that GVRS is implemented correctly, focusing on the people most connected to cycles of violence and building trust with community partners.

This is not Baltimore’s first encounter with focused deterrence. It was unsuccessfully attempted in the late 1990s and again in 2014. During these past attempts, concerns were raised by staff and community members that there were insufficient resources and commitment to deliver promised services to individuals targeted by the program. To address these concerns, Baltimore City has awarded a $1.2 million grant to Youth Advocate Partners (YAP) to provide outreach and social supports to program participants. There is good reason to believe that GVRS can be implemented effectively, even after failed efforts. In Oakland, California, there were also two unsuccessful attempts, in 2004 and 2010. On its third attempt, in 2013, Oakland fixed what went wrong in earlier iterations. Both simple statistics and formal evaluations suggest that Oakland’s latest strategy was effective at driving down homicides, from 127 in 2012 to 68 in 2018. GVRS officially began its operations in the Western District in Baltimore City in February 2022.



Founded in 1998 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Roca works with 16-25-year-olds who have experienced trauma and are the primary victims or drivers of urban violence. Roca approaches violence interruption as a long game. Roca, which means “rock” in Spanish, has developed an evidence-based, data-driven, four-year intervention model. Its four-year program starts with two years of intensive interaction with a client to gradually promote behavior changes and engagement in the program, followed by two years focused on sustaining the positive changes in behavior achieved in the first two. The model’s ultimate goals are to reduce clients’ incarceration rates and increase their ability to retain employment. For every 10 young people who were committing violence before entering the program, eight or nine stay out of trouble and have no new incarcerations.

Roca reaches out to high-risk young men identified in collaboration with criminal justice and social service agencies. These are young men who have histories of violence, gang involvement, and convictions. Outreach workers engage and re-engage participants and build relationships. The program uses cognitive behavior therapy to change behavior and connects these young men to education and work. Knowing that these young men may relapse or have setbacks, Roca’s transitional employment program provides an opportunity to persistently connect until the young men are prepared and ready for outside employment.

In 2021, 240 young men have been served by ROCA Baltimore with 77% being retained throughout the year and 84% of these individuals not having any new arrests. ROCA Baltimore is being formally evaluated by MDRC.


Violence Prevention Program

In 1998, Dr. Carnell Cooper created the Violence Prevention Program (VPP), after repeatedly treating victims and perpetrators of violence admitted into the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. VPP is a hospital-based violence intervention program that assists victims of violent injuries. Patients are engaged while they are still in the hospital, often just hours after a violent injury, to reduce the chance of retaliation and violent injury recurrence, and offered subsequent casework and services in areas such as mental health counseling, financial and educational support, and more. Since inception, the average annual recidivism for patients engaged in the Violence Prevention Program is less than 5%.

VPP was expanded to the University of Maryland Medical Center Emergency Departments at the Downtown and Midtown campuses in 2019. Abell awarded $250,000 to support the expansion to the emergency departments for a second year. On average, each quarter Shock Trauma admits 350 patients with an interpersonal violent injury, comprising 21% of all admissions. By offering these services in the Emergency Departments, they can reach approximately 600 additional people per year who experience a violent injury, the severity of which does not require admission to Shock Trauma. Previously, these individuals would not have received intervention services despite the statistically significant likelihood of readmission with a more severe violent injury, possibly to Shock Trauma. VPP served 424 individuals during the grant period with only two individuals being re-arrested for a new crime.