Research Watch: Cutting Kid Crime

Diana Zuckerman
October 1, 1998

Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice

University of Maryland

(800) 638-8736

This report, required by a 1996 law, provided nonpartisan, objective information about which U.S. Justice Department crime-prevention programs work and which don’t, based on 500 published studies. Several of the report’s conclusions fly in the face of political realities, and some popular programs, such as “midnight basketball” and D.A.R.E., were deemed ineffective.

The researchers found little relationships between program effectiveness and popularity. “Strong advocacy succeeds in getting some programs funded whether they work or not,” explains Lawrence Sherman, Ph.D., the lead author of the report.

The biggest political problem for prevention programs, according to Sherman, is that “money should be handed out where the crime is, not where the votes are.” The report criticizes the largest school-based program, the $467 million U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, for not targeting funds to high-crime communities, and for focusing on ineffective strategies such as counseling and anti-drug lectures. So did the Los Angeles Times, which published a scathing critique – “Falling Grade for Safe Schools Plan” – on September 6th. According to Denise Gottfredson, Ph.D., who wrote the report’s chapter on school-based programs, the Department of Education is now using the report’s recommendations to improve this program.

The school-based programs that work best are usually interactive, rather than lectures. In contrast, Drub Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), which reaches 25 million students, consists primarily of uniformed police officers lecturing students. The report concludes that D.A.R.E. does not work; it speculates that the problem may be the lecture format or the use of uniformed police. Recent changes in the D.A.R.E. curriculum, which critics charge are an attempt to dodge the bullet, were considered unlikely to make a substantial difference.

School programs that let kids know the rules and how they are expected to behave are surprisingly effective. These programs range from school-wide anti-bullying campaigns to programs that reward kids who behave well. Life Skills Training and similar long-term programs that teach kids to develop self-control, manage stress, solve problems and make responsible decisions also help prevent crime, delinquency and substance abuse. Crime and delinquency also seem to decrease when schools are strengthened to be more innovative, using teams and other strategies.

Counseling and peer group counseling are not effective, and neither are instructional programs that focus on fear (such as “Scared Straight” type programs), morality, or just providing information. Gun buy-back programs, short-term job training programs for at-risk youth, “outward bound” and rural residential programs, and arrests of juveniles for minor offenses are also ineffective. Activities such as “midnight basketball” and other recreation and community services lowered crime only when offered in combination with more effective youth development-oriented prevention programs.

The report’s conclusions vary considerably from the Safe Schools, Safe Students report by Drug Strategies (see Youth Today, September 1998), probably due to different methods. The Safe Schools report was based on experts’ ratings of the quality of 84 commercially available violence prevention programs. In contrast, the Sherman report reviewed 500 studies of how individuals changed after participating in crime prevention programs funded by the Justice Department.

The report has already resulted in some changes in government programs, but several fundamental recommendations have been ignored. For example, the report concludes that the government could save billions of dollars by spending much more money to evaluate programs. Since many politicians and service providers don’t want money to be taken from services to pay for evaluations that in the past have had little influence on funding decisions, this recommendation is likely to get little support.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Cutting Kid Crime." Research Watch review of Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising? Youth Today, October 1998, p. 5.

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