07.13.12

A New Way to Fight Juvenile Crime in Chicago

As Chicago battles a rising tide of homicides, university researchers there unveil a new study that suggests a better way to ease juvenile violence. James Warren reports.

Kids are killing kids in the streets of Chicago, but now there’s evidence of a way to prevent crime there and nationwide without stationing a cop at every corner.

Amid growing national attention on Chicago’s homicide spike, the University of Chicago Crime Lab coincidentally released a significant study Friday on the success of a violence-prevention program aimed at youth in grades 7 through 10.

The researchers, who have found scant evidence of effective programs dealing with youth violence anywhere in the United States, were taken aback by the results of their detailed study of 2,740 low-income males in Chicago public schools.

“When it comes to crime policy, there is a lot of skepticism about preventing crime through social policy,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab.“There is simply not much empirical evidence of much that works. It’s the same skepticism that prompted mass incarcerations in all the states.”

“This program, however, suggests that violence is more responsive to targeted social programs than I had thought. There was an amazingly huge reduction in violence. It was a surprise to me. We really can prevent crime.”

The study is being introduced Friday morning at a high school of 700 students where nine have been killed in gun violence the past year.

“Violence is more responsive to targeted social programs than I had thought,” says Ludwig. “There was an amazingly huge reduction in violence. It was a surprise to me. We really can prevent crime.”

The randomized Chicago field experiment, whose methodology included a control group and was comparable to that used by medical researchers in assessing new drugs, concluded that a particular antiviolence program sharply increased school outcomes and decreased violent crime arrests by 44 percent.

The experiment dates to 2009 and the Crime Lab decision to launch a project to confront the fact that homicide is responsible for the deaths of more black males ages 15 to 24 in the U.S. than the next nine causes of death combined, according to Centers of Disease Control data.

The lab announced a competition for promising ideas to reduce youth gun violence, with 30 proposals ultimately submitted by various social-service, nonprofit, and governmental organizations. The winning entry, titled “Becoming A Man—Sports Edition,” was the handiwork of two local organizations and was under way at Roberto Clemente High School, an all-too-typical violence-prone, underperforming urban school.

That program was notable in using nontraditional afterschool programs to attempt to underscore the importance of so-called social-cognitive skills, including self-control and positive interaction with peers.

One of many tactics was the “fist exercise,” where two boys were paired and one given a rubber ball to squeeze in a hand, while the other boy was given five minutes to get the ball out of that hand.

Generally, said Ludwig, the two boys “would beat the crap out of each other” and few were successful in extracting the ball. They would punch and bite but generally to no avail.

And, generally, nobody thought of simply asking for the ball. Why? It was partly because individuals were fearful of being seen as weak. But coaches used the fist exercise to force youth to reflect on their assumptions about the intentions of others. Why should they have assumed that asking for the ball in a cordial manner might not have been successful?

A host of other tactics were used to reinforce conflict-resolution skills and challenging old assumptions about how others would respond. These were intertwined with various afterschool sports activities, including wrestling, martial arts, archery, weight-lifting, boxing, and handball.

At all times, instructors and coaches focused on trying to get youth to better regulate their emotions, deal with stress, and develop a less violent sense of what constitutes masculinity. 

The importance of learning such skills is undisputed, and their relevance to long-term education and labor-market success has been perhaps most vividly identified by James Heckman, a University of Chicago Nobel laureate in economics.

But Heckman and many others have assumed that those skills are best inculcated when children are very young, prompting their call for improved early childhood education. That’s generally seen as the period between birth and age 5.

The youth here were far older. Indeed, they had missed an average of 40 days of school the year before and had a mean grade point average of D-plus, with a third having been arrested. It is exactly the sort of population that experts have long seen as largely immune to improvement.

The crime lab raised $1 million to expand the Clemente High School Program to 18 elementary and high schools. Only males who were also deemed of “medium risk” within their school environments were chosen and offered a one-hour small-group session in each of 27 weeks.

The attendees showed up at about half the sessions but despite that modest attendance there was a causal link between involvement in the program and a decline in violence.

To measure the impact of the program, the researchers used a variety of administrative records, along with juvenile- and adult-justice system arrest records.

“Our findings show that program participation significantly increased school engagement and performance by 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and by 0.19 standard deviations in the follow-up year, impacts that imply future graduation rate increases of about 10 to 23 percent of the control group’s graduation rate.”

“Program participation also reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent and arrests in the ‘other’ (miscellaneous) category, which includes vandalism and weapons crimes, by 36 percent (11.5 fewer arrests per 100 participants) during the program years.”

“The positive program effects provide the most rigorous, large-scale evidence to date that a social-cognitive skills intervention can improve both schooling and delinquency outcomes for disadvantaged youth.”

The Crime Lab concedes a variety of limitations, including in the manner in which it measured intervention impacts. For example, “The lack of original in-person data collection means that we have only limited information about how the program improved youth schooling outcomes and reduced violent behavior.”

That also means that the researchers aren’t quite sure why the program’s impact persisted when it came to a youth’s engagement in school but not necessarily to his violent behavior. They need to know more about what they call program “fade-out.”

Nevertheless, Ludwig and others, including beleaguered Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, praised the study. “The findings are vitally important for Chicago and every other city seeking to reduce crime and violence,” said McCarthy, who has underscored his understanding that the city can’t arrest its way out of the crime problem.

If the study is on the mark, it may also raise broader questions about how we invest in K-12 education. By and large most money is focused on academic performance. This suggests that there would be ample benefits to slice school budgets differently, to help with social-cognitive skills development.