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CYC-Online Issue 16 MAY 2000
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youth crime

What works in the prevention of youth crime?

Richard A. Mendel

Our society has a vital stake in incarcerating serious, violent, chronic criminals. But given the tremendous costs associated with building a spate of new prisons and housing hundreds of thousands of additional prisoners, relying only on increased incarceration to eliminate our persistent crime epidemic flies in the face of evidence and logic. In this report the author takes a hard-headed look at youth-oriented anti-crime programs from an American perspective.

This report reviews the facts underlying the delinquency debate – the wealth of scholarly evidence on the causes and correlates of delinquency and existing research examining how well various approaches to crime succeed in practice.

Is there a strong rationale for such programs as family therapies, recreation and midnight sports leagues and school-based conflict resolution to prevent or decrease delinquent behavior by youth? Do these programs actually make a cost-effective contribution to controlling crime? Or, rather, is there merit to the critiques that depict prevention efforts as naive, soft-headed, even counterproductive?

Cold reality
By examining these questions carefully, policy makers can govern more wisely on crime. Advocates, reporters, and other interested observers can influence policy makers to conduct the next crime debate on the basis of cold reality rather than colorful rhetoric. What is the cold reality about crime and crime prevention? A hard-headed look at the evidence reveals several lessons:

Research provides a strong foundation for identifying risk factors early in life, which enables us to address the underlying conditions that propel some youth to crime. The road to violence begins in childhood. Criminologists have long known that a relative handful of serious chronic offenders are responsible for the majority of crime in America. Research documents that violent chronic offenders are most active during their teen years. Their paths to violence almost always begin with serious behavioral problems in early childhood. While most children who exhibit poor conduct right themselves rather than embark on a life of crime, those who do become chronic offenders typically follow well-worn pathways toward increasingly serious criminality.

Research identifies many risk factors that contribute to youths' propensity for violence and delinquency. Crime-prone youth are more likely to come from families where parents are abusive or neglectful, provide harsh or erratic discipline, or exhibit marital discord. They tend to live in communities rife with drugs, crime, guns, and poverty, where positive role models and safe, constructive recreational opportunities are scarce.

They are likely to associate with peers who are delinquent or drug-abusing or to participate in youth gangs. In many cases they are “tracked" at school into classes dominated by low-achieving and trouble-making students.

Several individual characteristics – such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, low intelligence – have been linked to delinquency. The presence or lack of self-control, problem-solving skills, and beliefs condemning violence have been identified as key determinants of criminality. Other personal factors – a strong and sustained relationship with at least one adult, an even temperament, and an ability to evoke positive responses in others – have been identified as “protective factors" that can help insulate even high-risk youth from the danger of falling into delinquency. Prevention can address the risks facing many children while boosting protective factors, making them less likely to become delinquent.

Tougher law enforcement and stricter sanctions are unlikely, in the absence of effective crime prevention, to reduce crime significantly.

Impressive results
A number of youth-oriented prevention strategies have documented impressive results in reducing criminal, delinquent, and pre-delinquent behavior among young people.

Any doubt that prevention programs can reduce crime are dispelled by several carefully evaluated programs providing intensive assistance to children and their families in the first five years of life. The best known of these is the Perry Pre-school program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, forerunner to the present day Head Start program. Long-term follow-up revealed that at age 27, more than 20 years after completing the program, only seven percent of Perry participants had been arrested five or more times, compared with 35 percent of a control group. Family intervention programs have also shown dramatic impact on criminality.

Only six percent of participants in a day care assistance and home visiting program in Syracuse, New York were ever processed in juvenile court – versus 22 percent of youth assigned randomly to a control group.

Reaching youth before trouble starts
Many delinquency prevention programs targeted to older children and adolescents have not been implemented on a broad scale. Most that have been tried have typically operated on meagre budgets and without careful evaluation. Nonetheless, the record reveals that several prevention strategies including both “pure prevention" aimed at the general youth population and “targeted treatment" for those already engaged in problem behaviors do indeed divert youth from the pathways to crime. Included among them are:

Community-wide prevention initiatives
Most impressive of the pure prevention efforts are multipronged prevention initiatives designed and implemented by entire communities, particularly those that build on the strengths and interests of youth rather than focusing only on youths' problems and deficits:

Multi-dimensional violence prevention in schools
Conflict resolution and violence prevention curricula have swept the nation in recent years. Several programs have documented impacts on students' beliefs and conflict resolution skills and on students' self-reported behavior. The best of these programs reach beyond the classroom into the entire school and the broader community.

Recreation programs
Though midnight basketball became the brunt of many a rhetorical attack, leagues spread rapidly across the country in recent years – often with active support from local law enforcement agencies. Particularly when they require participation in life skills workshops and other constructive activities as a prerequisite for playing, these leagues have helped to bring down crime rates in sponsoring communities. The original league in Glenarden, Maryland, is credited with reducing crime by 60 percent.

In the Winton Hills section of Cincinnati, crime rates plummeted 24 per cent within 13 weeks after a late night recreation program was initiated.

Other recreation and youth development activities can be equally effective. Researchers at Columbia University found that the presence of a Boys or Girls Club in a public housing project reduced crime rates by 13 percent and drug use by more than 20 percent.

Resolving Conflicts Creatively (RCC), a Brooklyn, New York-based program, combines violence prevention classes with peer mediation and parent training to change the total school environment. In one early evaluation, 70 percent of teachers involved in the program reported that RCC reduced fighting among participating students.

Teens, Crime, and the Community, a national curriculum, challenges students to examine and act on real crime issues and take preventive action. It has been shown to improve students' attitudes and knowledge and to reduce their likelihood of delinquency.

Treating troubled youth
Prevention can work. Particularly when communities come together to offer youth a continuum of programs and services, and provide youth the opportunity for supportive and sustained relationships with caring adults, and the chance to assume constructive roles in the community, the effect on youth can be appreciable. But these purely preventive efforts do not deal with youth already in trouble. The majority of crimes are committed by a relative handful of repeat offenders who typically display serious behavior problems in early childhood. For them, more intensive, individualized treatment will likely be required. What is the record of treatment or intervention programs in redirecting troubled youth? Though some types of treatment have proven to be far more effective than others, the overall answer can be summed up in two words: “quite promising".

Family therapies
The most impressive interventions focus on the families of troubled youth – even youth with serious behavior problems. One approach, multi-systemic family therapy (MST) reduced re-arrest rates among incarcerated youth by almost half. Youths who received MST spent an average of 73 fewer days behind bars in the year following treatment than did youths in a control group.

Other family interventions have also shown dramatic results. When Parent Management Training (PMT) was provided to parents of problem children ages 3-8, the children fared far better than a control group of children assigned to a waiting list for the program. Overall, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the PMT children achieved clinically significant change and returned to a normal range of behavioral functioning. PMT has also been found effective with adolescents – even those with serious juvenile crime records.

Cognitive training
Another set of promising intervention programs aims to develop in troubled youth the social and cognitive skills necessary to avoid conflict and control aggression. Children raised in strong families, quality schools, and healthy communities typically develop these skills as a matter of course.

Among high risk and delinquent youth they are often lacking. Research shows that focused training in social problem-solving, anger management, moral reasoning and perspective-taking can make a significant difference both with children displaying early signs of delinquency and with youth already incarcerated for serious offences.

These programs can be delivered for only a small fraction of the cost of incarcerating offenders in juvenile or adult prisons; the best programs have demonstrated the capacity to reduce crime rates.

The Positive Adolescent Choices Training (PACT) program teaches negotiation, compromise, and a variety of anger management skills to troubled African American adolescents. A recent study showed that only 18 percent of PACT participants were referred to juvenile court in the three years after training compared with 49 percent of a randomly assigned control group.

A number of other treatment approaches have also been shown to reduce criminality. Providing delinquent youth intensive contact with college student volunteers under the guidance of graduate students and university faculty has proved successful in several tests. Youthful offenders ordered to pay restitution to their victims or perform service to the community have lower recidivism rates than those for whom restitution or service is not ordered. Sentencing juveniles to appropriate correctional programs, based in the community whenever possible, rather than only to “training schools" or other large-scale detention facilities has proved a cost-effective strategy in Massachusetts and other states; recidivism and juvenile crime rates have remained low in these states.

Evaluation methodology for assessing youth-oriented crime prevention programs at reasonable cost remains in its infancy. While some evaluated programs have shown little or no impact on criminal behavior, evaluation is beginning to understand what works and what does not. Further investments in research and evaluation of crime prevention are clearly justified.
Several popular strategies – including most school-based conflict resolution, peer mediation, and gang prevention efforts – have not yet been rigorously evaluated. Hundreds of these programs are being tested throughout the country, and several show great promise.

What doesn't work
Other prevention approaches have proved ineffective in repeated tests. Shock incarceration (i.e., boot camps) does not reduce criminality, studies show. Short-term, “quick fix" job training has not lowered arrest rates. Neither traditional psychotherapy nor behavior modification has shown great promise as a vehicle for redirecting delinquent and criminal youth. A few efforts – mostly scare-oriented programs or programs that place groups of delinquent youth together for extended treatment – have actually worsened the behavior of participants.

Government needs to develop and implement prevention programs aggressively, taking care to learn from experience. Research and evaluation must be important elements in all prevention efforts.

A cost-effective approach to crime requires more than punishment. A country cannot jail away its crime problem by warehousing criminals, young or old. It cannot solve crime solely through deterrence, or by “shocking" trouble-prone youth or “scaring them straight." Rather, to help children and youth grow into productive, constructive adults, they must be supervised, supported, educated, encouraged, cared for and given opportunities to contribute. And they must have positive opportunities for recreation, exploration, and personal growth.

For some youth, particularly those from high-risk families and communities, cognitive skills training and family counseling will also be required. And to be effective, these treatments must be carefully crafted, research-based, and effectively implemented.

To date, nowhere in America have all of these pieces been pulled together in one community, although a number of places are trying to do so. Nowhere has the impact of well-defined, youth-oriented crime prevention programs been fully realized. Prevention's potential remains untapped. Given the high costs and dubious benefits to be expected from continuing on the lock 'em-up path, and given the encouraging results of many youth oriented prevention and intervention strategies, a significant public investment is surely warranted both to strengthen and expand a youth oriented prevention agenda and to step up the effort to refine and improve on prevention's promise.

Throwing money at prevention will not solve our crime problem. But ignoring prevention is an even worse alternative. Both to protect ourselves and to secure our children's future, prevention must become a mainstay in our nation's crime control strategy. A two-armed approach to crime is long overdue.