New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High-Risk Youth

Vanderbilt University – Owen Graduate School of Management and City University of New York – John Jay College of Criminal Justice
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Using new data and a new calculation method, Vanderbilt University law professor Mark Cohen and City University of New York criminal justice professor Alex Piquero have updated a figure that is frequently cited by programs working with at-risk youth: the cost to society of one person’s criminal career – or, as it’s better known in the field, the financial savings from diverting a youth from a life of drugs, crime and ignorance.

In 1995, Cohen calculated that the monetary value of “saving” one high-risk youth was between $1.7 million and $2.3 million, based on costs to crime victims and the criminal justice system, the costs to society of heavy drug abuse and the economic impact of dropping out of high school.

The new study places that figure at between $2.6 million and $5.3 million.

“The work I did gets cited all the time in proposals as evidence that [prevention] programs can have a high payoff,” Cohen said. “Of course, they need to work first.”

In the new study, Cohen and Piquero break down, for the first time, the mounting year-by-year costs to society of criminal behavior by a “high-risk” offender from age 8 through 32. Cohen defines a “high-risk” youth as one having six or more lifetime contacts with law enforcement.

For example: According to the study, the typical 10-year-old high-risk offender imposes about $3,010 in annual costs on society, while the cost for a 16-year-old reaches $279,371. The annual costs escalate until reaching a high of about $492,415 at age 22, when criminal activity typically begins to subside.

The study also underscores the fact that while “high-risk,” chronically offending youth represent only about 6 percent of all juvenile offenders, they commit about 50 percent of all crimes – racking up the highest costs to society. Likewise, the societal costs imposed by an offender of any age increase as the offender’s number of police contacts increases.

In addition to updating Cohen’s methods of calculation to account for higher costs of living and new federal estimates on the offending rates of high-risk juveniles, the new study considers the rarely explored cost to society of the fear of crime and the consequences of that fear.

Whereas his previous study used a “bottom-up” methodology that combined societal costs, this year Cohen looked at recent studies that focused on a “top-down” methodology: the cost the public was “willing to pay” (WTP) for specific reductions in crime.

According to Cohen, a typical WTP question would ask: “There’s a program that would reduce armed robberies by 10 percent in your community. To fund that in your community next year would cost $100 per household. Would you pay that?”

“It gets at all of the impacts of crimes,” Cohen said. “We all know there’s fear walking around the street, that there are people who have certain avoidance behaviors, and don’t go down certain roads at night. These WTP numbers incorporate the public’s value of crime reduction.”


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