Crime prevention that works

The problem with most of the social-service-based “crime prevention” programs – the main alternative offered by progressives to the cruel and futile current policy of mass incarceration – is that that they don’t actually prevent much crime. But Sara Heller, Harold Pollack, Roseanna Ander, and Jens Ludwig at the University of Chicago seem to have found an exception to that rule.

The intervention is nothing fancy: just group conselling and mentoring, focused on social-cognitive skill development. But they seem to have made it work, and they have a large-N RCT to back up the claims of substantially reduced criminal activity and improved academic performance.

At $1100 per participant, there’s no apparent barrier to taking this to scale.


  1. says

    Kevin Drum’s lead hypothesis can be linked to this. For if lead promotes crime, it must do so by affecting neural processes. Those that control impulsiveness are a strong candidate. But that’s not to say that other interventions, like education, don’t affect the same processes – the baseline level of crime in societies where children were exposed to similar amounts of lead (Zurich, Chicago) is very different. (Education, not lecturing.) A good physical explanation doesn’t close the door to psychosocial intervention, it shows what to target.

  2. JMG says

    Do incarceration or other retributive “crime prevention” programs prevent crime? Places with high incarceration rates don’t seem to have lower crime rates. We don’t seem to have worried about effectiveness while CCA mines all that grey gold.

    • Mitch Guthman says

      I don’t know whether incarceration prevents crime but logically it must prevent some crimes. I assume that some people are don’t participate in criminal activity because they fear going to prison. Certainly, people in prison are deterred from committing crimes against the general public because they are in prison. I don’t have enough information to perform even a basic cost benefit analysis.

      I would point out, however, the these types of social programs have benefits beyond crime prevention. My impression is that this particular program, for example, inexpensively helps people to get the “life skills” and guidance to either avoid or leave a life of crime, and, more importantly, to lead richer, fuller lives. That would seem to be a worthwhile thing independent of how much crime was prevented. If the program is effective at deterring crime, so much the better.

      Also, unless you think they’re just randomly tossing people in prison, I don’t think it follows that incarceration is ineffective at preventing crime simply because places with high rates of incarceration tend to also have high crime rates.

      • Mark Kleiman says

        Incarceration logically must prevent some crimes. But since it also causes other crimes, the sign of he net effect is ambiguous. Piehl and Useem estimate that the marginal prisoner in the median state probably adds, on balance, to the crime rate.

        • JMG says

          Exactly. I would like to see a requirement for least-cost/evidence-based sentencing, where the guideline is that the sentencing authority must use the lowest cost method of control to respond to the offender — and that would include costs to the families and the neighborhoods of the social disintegration imposed by excessive sentencing. Since learning that the number one predictor of a future in prison is a father in prison, I’ve marveled at how much we demand in the way of justification for doing inexpensive things, while we unquestioningly fund the grey gold gravy train in rural America.