Thinking About Prevention: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Jeremy Travis
Director, National Institute of Justice

Hans W. Mattick Lecture
University of Illinois at Chicago
February 12, 1998
Chicago, Illinois

Dear friends and colleagues; with thanks to hosts.

I wish to thank you for your very kind invitation to spend the day with students, faculty and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over the years, NIJ has developed deep and productive partnerships with individual researchers. The new challenge we have embraced is to forge new relationships between the Institute and the leading academic institutions in our field. We are, after all, engaged in similar intellectual activity -- namely, the development of intellectual capacity to advance the quality of knowledge about crime and justice. In particular, we think it important that we extend our reach in new directions -- to those established scholars who, for whatever reason, have not been part of the NIJ family of researchers, and to those upcoming scholars whose work might benefit from association with NIJ. In short, we take seriously our obligation to build the field and Christy Visher and I jumped at the invitation to come spend time with you in Chicago.

I would like to talk with you this afternoon about crime prevention -- about ways to conceptualize the prevention of crime, to think about research on the prevention of crime, and consider those issues in the context of emerging research on the workings of that entity we loosely call "community." This is an appropriate topic for a lecture in Chicago, and a lecture in honor of Hans W. Mattick. Hans Mattick was a scholar who bridged the great divide between the worlds of scholarship and practice, who reflected a deep personal commitment to improving the practice of the justice professions. And the City of Chicago has been -- and continues to be -- synonymous with research on the forces of community. Over sixty years ago, sociologists here in Chicago undertook landmark studies on the social organization of neighborhoods, with particular attention to the influence of poverty, ethnic composition and residential stability on rates of delinquency and crime. In the present era, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods and the Evaluation Consortium examining Chicago's CAPS program carry on that proud tradition and continue to provide intellectual leadership to the nation. So, I hope that my thoughts today reflect both the spirit of Hans Mattick and the intellectual contributions of the Chicago school of research on communities.

We need to make some linguistic and conceptual distinctions at the outset. I have adopted a very broad definition of crime prevention -- that is, any activity, public or private, that has the result of reducing the incidence of criminal behavior. Now I recognize that is a very broad definition -- indeed, there is a lively debate in Washington right now in response to a report by the General Accounting Office that looked through the federal budget and found that we spend $4 billion on crime prevention efforts.1 Included in this astronomical number are programs that focus on developing self-sufficiency skills, gang intervention, mentoring, tutoring, conflict resolution, counseling, substance abuse intervention, job training assistance, support services, and parental and family intervention. Now, under my definition, these initiatives may have the result of reducing crime, so they are technically speaking, crime prevention programs.

Without establishing the outer boundaries of my broad definition, allow me to describe some public and private activities that, to me, should fall squarely within our definition. Certainly, we should define crime prevention as including rehabilitation programs. On their own terms, they seek to change the behavior of criminals to reduce the likelihood that these individuals will violate our criminal laws. If successful, such efforts reduce crime. The first cousin to rehabilitation programs are those interventions that work with young people who, because of their life circumstances or their individual behavior, are considered to be on a path to delinquent or criminal behavior. Successful interventions with these young people -- even before the onset of a criminal career -- will prevent crime.

But a variety of other activities have similar results. A community's decision to increase the lighting around a public park may reduce crime. A police department's decision to close a crack house may reduce crime. A state's decision to increase incarceration of individuals in their high crime prone years may reduce crime. These examples reflect a potentially very diverse array of government and neighborhood efforts that are intended to prevent crime and, after careful evaluations, may be found to have achieved that intention.

So, my first point is that we should not think of crime prevention -- the effort to avoid the next crime -- as limited to rehabilitation of offenders, nor as limited to interventions in the lives of those at high risk of becoming offenders, nor as being juxtaposed against the efforts of police and the effects of incarceration. The choice between prevention and police and punishment -- which is the way our policy debate are often framed -- is a false choice. Police and prisons can and do prevent crime. And sometimes, the most effective way to prevent crime is by reducing opportunity -- by placing lights in the park.

But we must also be careful to recognize that crime prevention is a result, not an intention. Allow me to use a simple and commonplace example to make this point. You may be familiar with home nurse visitation programs. Under these programs, an individual, sometimes a nurse, sometimes a trained child care paraprofessional, visits the homes of new parents, or parents with pre-schoolers, to help them with child rearing. They provide the family with information about services; they impart skills in child rearing; they provide emotional support to new or young parents. The evaluation studies on these programs have shown quite impressive results. Prenatal and early childhood home visitation by nurses can reduce the number of subsequent pregnancies and the use of welfare on the part of low-income, unmarried mothers for up to 15 years after the birth of their first child. But, interestingly, these programs have also been shown to be highly effective at reducing child abuse in those families and, as importantly, reducing the later onset of delinquent and anti-social behavior by the children.2 Now, these programs did not think of themselves as crime prevention programs, but they have that impact. So, our definition of crime prevention must include those interventions that are designed principally to produce other socially desirable results -- healthier individuals, healthier families, higher educational attainment, decreased dependence on illegal drugs, more attachment to the world of work, etc. -- because these programs, if successful, are likely to also have the effect of reducing crime.

This second point was forcefully presented in a recent report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, at the request of Congress, and carried out by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.3 In 1996, Congress required the Attorney General to provide a "comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness" of the over $3 billion spent annually by the Department of Justice in grants to state and local governments. In carrying out this assignment, the University of Maryland decided to adopt a broad definition of prevention -- looking at results, not intentions -- and to review all of the known evaluation reports examining those programs. The result was a massive, landmark report -- over 500 pages, reviewing over 500 program impact evaluations. They organized their inquiry by examining the "domains" in which prevention occurs -- and came up with seven -- communities, families, schools, labor markets, places, police and criminal justice -- and then reviewing the entire evaluation literature in each of these domains. I recommend this report to you -- both for its rigor and for its originality.

This approach -- one that examines results, not intentions, to understand prevention -- also leads to another form of inquiry -- cost-benefit analysis. As you know, this is very difficult research to undertake. The research must make assumption upon assumption, all the while fearing that the entire house of cards constructed in the analysis may tumble down if a major assumption is poorly grounded. For example, how should we measure the benefit of the home nurse visitation program I just mentioned? How can one quantify the healthy life? Yet, for all the inherent weaknesses, the cost-benefit approach is absolutely necessary if one is to bring research about prevention into the public policy arena.

In our field, we celebrate evaluation studies that are rigorously conducted and show positive impact. In part, our celebratory response to findings of program effectiveness must be understood against the backdrop of a history of findings of no impact -- remember, the last generation was raised on the literature of "nothing works" that dominated the field in the mid-1970's. Robert Martinson's often-cited article, "What Works? -- Questions and Answers about Prison Reform," reviewed the most effective means of rehabilitating prison inmates, and found that "with few and isolated exceptions, rehabilitative efforts had no appreciable effect on recidivism," a conclusion that was widely interpreted in scholarly and policy communities as "nothing works."4

But in larger part, our celebratory response to findings of positive impact, particularly in the field of rehabilitation programs, must be understood against the current public mood. There are few public advocates for the notion that criminals are deserving of our attention and our efforts to improve their lives -- so every research finding of positive impact is the equivalent of lighting a candle in the public policy darkness. But we rarely ask the tough next question: what dosage of intervention was required to produce this result? What was the cost for that benefit? And, even more important, what public policy options were available for investing the marginal crime prevention dollar? If a governor, or judge, or city council, had one million dollars to spend on crime prevention, what would be the best investment in terms of the crime reduction return? Few researchers are willing to take on this challenge. The RAND Corporation has conducted important and provocative cost benefit analyses that match one prevention policy against another in terms of yield on investment or, in a path breaking study, comparing the cost benefit of mandatory minimum sentences against treatment in reducing drug consumption. Even fewer communities are willing to adopt this approach to budgeting scarce dollars to reduce crime. I believe firmly that this is an area where the research community must demonstrate leadership.

The third point I would like to raise on the issue of crime prevention requires us to step back from individual programs -- even when most broadly defined to include something like home nurse visitation programs -- and to ask a more fundamental question: "What forces create law-abiding behavior?" I believe we are living in a period of history that requires us to ask this more fundamental question. We are witnessing record declines in violent crime rates in some, but not all, United States cities. The declines are greatest in the larger cities, and greatest in those that have also experienced downward trends in use of crack cocaine. Some of the declines are nothing short of breath-taking. In New York City, my home, the number of homicides has dropped from 2,245 in 1990 (when New York City started to increase its police department by nearly 20%), to 986 in 1996,5 and early results from 1997 continue to show record declines. This is a 56 percent drop over six years. On a national level, the level of victimization reported in the crime victims survey is the lowest since 1973, when the NCVS was first conducted.

How are we to understand these drops in crime? Certainly, if we were "program-centric", we would have a very hard time arguing that a large number of highly successful crime prevention and rehabilitation programs combined to produce this result. Changes in crack markets and crack use would apparently explain much of the reduction, but in some cities such as Boston the decline in homicides appears more related to changes in juvenile behavior than crack use or crack markets. More likely, it seems to me, is a hypothesis that states that, once anti-social behavior reached a "tipping point"6 where communities, young people, criminal justice professionals, educators, police and others involved with community well-being basically said "enough", then a combination of a number of factors -- ranging from problem solving, community-oriented policing to maturation of illegal drug markets -- kicked in and, in a short time, the norm structure of a community started to change. Certain behavior was no longer acceptable. And those norms were reinforced by police and community alike.

So, my point is that, ultimately, we must understand crime prevention as being an integral part of the character and personality of a community. We have long known that "strong parental attachments to consistently disciplined children, in watchful and supportive communities are the best vaccine against street crime and violence... Each person's bonds to family, community, school and work create what criminologists call `informal social control,' the pressures to conform to the law that have little to do with the threat of punishment."7 What we do not yet understand adequately is the mix of social policies that strengthen those informal social controls.

Allow me to draw upon some work being conducted in Chicago and funded by the National Institute of Justice, the MacArthur Foundation and several other federal research agencies. This research effort, called the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, is the most ambitious study of the relationship between community, crime, delinquency, family and individual development now underway in the United States. At the community level, the Project has surveyed more than 8,700 adult residents in 343 neighborhoods throughout Chicago. In addition, researchers have identified 80 neighborhoods as the focus for a longitudinal cohort study to be conducted over the next eight years. As part of the first wave of this longitudinal study, researchers have conducted interviews with 7,000 children and adolescents and their primary caregivers.8

Over the next several years, we will be reaping the rich rewards of this ambitious research project. This past August, the research team, headed by Dr. Felton Earls of the Harvard School of Public Health, published their first findings in Science magazine.9 They reported that the largest predictor of violent crime rates was "collective efficacy" -- a term they used to mean a sense of trust, common values, and cohesion in a neighborhood. They found that there are lower rates of violence in neighborhoods that have a strong sense of community and values, where adults are likely to intervene when children are missing from school or scrawling graffiti. According to Professor Robert Sampson, a co-author of the report, "cohesion, or efficacy, seems to be a shared vision, a fusion of shared willingness of residents to intervene and social trust, a sense of engagement and ownership of public space." According to Dr. Earls, the most important characteristic of "collective efficacy" is a "willingness by residents to intervene in the lives of children." Dr. Earls is referring to a willingness to supervise, or step in, and monitor children in a neighborhood.10

This finding of collective efficacy is important standing alone, but it is doubly important when placed in context. Collective efficacy, when assessing predictors of violence, has an impact OVER AND ABOVE traditional predictors such as race/ethnic composition, poverty and residential instability.

For me, the importance of the Chicago study is that it understands communities as independent forces for social well-being. In other words, communities may be our most powerful crime prevention "program".

At NIJ, we are thinking about the implications of this research for our own research strategy -- How would one test the notion of collective efficacy? How would one try to strengthen community infrastructure? How would one build criminal justice responses that have, as one of their purposes, creation of a stronger community?

We are now developing a new research initiative that we call "Building Safety, Building Knowledge: Block by Block," or more affectionately, by its nickname, "Block by Block." As currently envisioned, the "Block by Block" initiative would look like this. Over a five year period, NIJ would establish, at the neighborhood level in a small number of cities, a comprehensive set of measures of community well-being -- very similar to those currently being developed by the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods. We would include traditional measures such as crime, fear of crime, and community disorder; we would also measure public attitudes, social cohesion, offender behavior, and victim responses to crime. In many ways, this first part of the Block by Block initiative is quite similar to the work underway in Chicago. In essence, we are adopting the "community" as the unit of analysis for a larger research effort.

Yet, Block by Block is more than a basic research program. The working title, you will recall, is "Building Safety, Building Knowledge: Block by Block." We want also to learn about what works to prevent crime -- how to "build safety" -- and to ground our research knowledge about the impact of interventions in the community context. So, we are also planning to work closely with the leadership of the neighborhood and the larger community to test, simultaneously, a limited number of interventions that have strong foundations in the research literature and have demonstrated effectiveness. The key here is to examine the impact of these interventions by using a very diverse set of measures of impact and, as important, to examine the interactive effects of more than one intervention.

Let's make this a bit more concrete. We have strong reasons to believe that mentoring programs may be effective, that police and other criminal justice interventions targeted against young people at high risk of involvement in gangs may be effective, and that conflict resolution programs may be effective. All of these programs, in different ways, are efforts to change the dynamics of the youth culture in a community and to change the life course of individual young people. Is it possible that the power of each intervention will be greater if they are undertaken simultaneously? Take a second example. We have strong reasons to believe that there have been significant changes in the relationship between crack cocaine and levels of violence. Yet, beyond understanding the statistical correlation between the prevalence of crack cocaine and the levels of homicide in communities we have studied, we have little understanding of how deliberate policy interventions might influence that relationship. Can a combination of police intervention, youth work and drug treatment change the attitudes of drug users and people at risk of drug use toward crack and violence?

In its current conception, therefore, the Block by Block initiative we are developing is both a research program and a demonstration program. We want both to measure and to test research hypotheses. Let me hasten to acknowledge the risks inherent in this venture. We are acutely aware that any effort to test more than one intervention at the same time poses risks of contamination of effects. We know that it will be difficult to ascribe causation. We know that we will have difficulty -- perhaps approaching an impossibility -- establishing a control or comparison community. In thinking about these issues, we expect to learn valuable lessons from Chicago's experience with the evaluation of the CAPS program. As you know, these are formidable challenges. Yet, I think that these challenges are worth embracing, for the following reasons.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed significant -- and in some cases, stunning -- reductions in crime. These reductions cannot be explained by large social forces such as employment rates, incarceration rates, income distribution, or age of the population. Nor can these dramatic changes be viewed as the sum of many successful prevention programs, by which I include successful police programs. Certainly the research on the nexus between the rise and fall of the crack cocaine epidemic and the homicide rates is very illuminating, but only begs more questions about the direction of these relationships. I believe that the key to understanding these changes in the crime rates is an understanding of community dynamics and the reverberations in community dynamics that are felt when an external impulse is applied. That external impulse could be a threat to community well-being -- such as the introduction of crack -- or supportive of community well-being -- such as the openness of the police to community engagement in crime-fighting.

I think the poverty we must address, now, is not a poverty of program design -- rather we must recognize that we suffer from a poverty of research design. We face two related challenges: first, we need to develop and sustain a series of measures of essential attributes of community; second, we need to use these measures to observe changes within these communities while applying multiple interventions. We have insufficient measures, over an insufficient length of time, with insufficient willingness to try more than one intervention at one time, in more than one jurisdiction at a time. We are not able to conduct research on crime prevention in a way that reflects the complexity -- and the potential power -- of real life and real communities.

We should not abandon the medical model of evaluation research; on the contrary, we need to geometrically increase our investment in testing research hypotheses using the most rigorous research designs that can be implemented in real world settings. Yet, let's imagine that we could mount all the classic control group experiments that could be designed by the best practitioners and academics in the country, would we have a complete understanding of the broad enterprise of crime prevention that we defined at the outset of this talk? I think not -- so we need another set of tools in our toolbox. We need to ask a different set of questions about prevention -- questions that can only be asked at the community level. I think that is the challenge we face, and I welcome your active partnership in helping us meet that challenge.

Notes

  1. U.S. General Accounting Office. 1995. At-Risk and Delinquent Youth: Multiple Federal Programs Raise Efficiency Questions. Washington, D.C.

  2. Olds, David L., John Eckenrode, Charles R.Henderson, Harriet Kitzman, Jane Powers, Robert Cole, Kimberly Sidora, Pamela Morris, Lisa Petitt, and Dennis Luckey. 1997. "Long-term Effects of Home Visitation on Maternal Life Course and Child Abuse and Neglect." JAMA, Vol.278, No.8. American Medical Association.

  3. University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 1997. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising. Office of Justice Research Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  4. Martinson, Robert. 1974. "What Works? -- Questions and Answers about Prison Reform." The Public Interest. Vol.10: pages 22-54.

  5. Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  6. Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Tipping Point." June 3, 1996. The New Yorker.

  7. University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 1997. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising. Office of Justice Research Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  8. Earls, Felton J. & Christy A. Visher. 1997. "Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods: A Research Update." National Institute Research In Brief. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

  9. Sampson, Robert & Stephen Raudenbush & Felton Earls. 1997. "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." Science, Vol.277. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  10. Butterfield, Fox. "Study Links Rate of Violence to Cohesion in Community." New York Times. August 17, 1997.
Date Created: November 28, 2007