Looking for Answers to Falling Juvenile Crime Rates

John LashWhat really works? This is a question that might be asked in a lot of settings, both personal and professional. In my own life, I wonder about things like how to get the ants out of my kitchen without too many toxic chemicals. In my professional life, I wonder about what kinds of interventions can keep kids out of the juvenile justice system.

Sometimes the answers aren’t as obvious as might be hoped for. The ants disappear, and I can’t figure out why. The kid quits skipping school and getting into trouble. We sense that our actions have an impact and that choosing one course over another will lead to different results.

This morning I attended a meeting at the local jail. The chief there mentioned that, at least anecdotally, the crime rate has been decreasing for several years (with the exception of certain property crimes). Why? No one knows for sure, though some will offer theories, often from an ideological perspective.

David Berreby, at Big Think, posted an article a few weeks ago highlighting how some very popular theories of what has led to New York’s drop in crime are, simply, wrong. The most lauded perhaps is the “broken windows” theory. This idea posited that signs of decay, like broken windows, fed into a spiral of increasingly serious social breakdown. To counter this police began to focus on enforcing laws aimed at improving quality of life issues, including petty crime and code violations. Crime did indeed decrease, and the model was copied by other departments around the country.

The problem, as shown by researcher David Greenberg in Justice Quarterly, is that the theory is simply wrong. Despite the increase in arrests for misdemeanors, there was no causal connection to the level of felonies. He similarly debunks NYPD’s Compstat system, which tracked areas of high crime and purported to identify police who weren’t doing their job. Greenberg concludes that none of the police policies were related to the drop in crime. Instead, programs that were in place when the drop occurred got the credit. Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

The kicker is that not only did crime rates drop in New York, they dropped around the United States and across the globe, and no one knows exactly why. This is a humbling fact, and one not admitted in many circles where adherence to certain approaches is tied to political or professional careers.

The truth is no doubt multifaceted. It could be poverty, head injury, lead levels, social structures, maternal care … the possibilities are numerous and complex.

Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward with plans to impact the world. The more we focus on evidence-based practices and on gathering data well and early in new programs, the greater our chances of figuring out where best to commit our limited resources both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.                             


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