A New Way to Reduce the High Cost of Youth Violence
Policy + Politics

A New Way to Reduce the High Cost of Youth Violence

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

A few weeks ago, a New York City junior high school cafeteria was the scene of a brutal hate crime.  Two young punks bullied and severelybeat 14-year-old Kardin Ulysse while hurling gay epithets.  The attack left Kardin depressed, in pain, and blind in one eye.  It also left the parents heartbroken and angry --   angry enough to sue the city for negligence for $16 million.  

In addition to the social costs of youth crime, the economic costs of incarcerating the approximately 93,000 young people in juvenile justice facilities across the United States is a burden few cities and counties can afford.  A report by the Justice Policy Institute claims that 70 percent of these youth are held in state-funded, post adjudication, residential facilities, at an average cost of $241 per day per person or $87,965 a year. “With states facing serious budgetary constraints, it is an opportune time for policymakers to consider ways to reduce juvenile justice spending that won’t
compromise public safety,” the report states. 

While violent crime among the young has dropped to an historic low through the Great Recession, the problem continues to plague many inner city neighborhoods, especially in the largest cities.

Chicago, for instance, by mid-year had already recorded 250 homicides, up 35 percent from a year ago. That’s more than any other city in the nation and even exceeded the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan, the local papers noted.

Four shooting deaths that took place on a recent weekend included two teenagers, ages 13 and 14. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a desperate attempt to curb the violence, has begun handing out gift cards to people who turn in guns. He’s also sent policemen into several of the most troubled inner city neighborhoods to prevent the escalation of kid-on-kid violence that often ends in sidewalk gun battles and knifings.

Emanuel and other big city mayors dealing with the problem might want to pay close attention to a study unveiled Friday by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. It showed that intensive counseling of at-risk high school students, coupled with a rigorous after-school sports program, could sharply reduce violent crime and youth-on-youth crime rates.

“We spend so much money on youth violence and prevention program without really knowing what works,” said Harold Pollack, a professor of social services administration at the university. “This program got the kids to understand what causes their behavior and how they could behave differently.”

The program used a lottery to assign 2,740 male high school students – who collectively had a D+ average in school with a third having previous arrest records – either to the program or to the control group, which received the usual Chicago Public Schools services. Over 800 boys took part in the program, which required attending a once-a-week group counseling session and joining an after-school “individual” sports program like wrestling, archery or boxing.

“The counseling focused on social cognitive skills that promote self-regulation – like breathing exercises to deal with impulse control,” Pollack said. “They also focused on setting long-term goals and developing concrete ‘what I do today’ steps to achieve those goals.”

Not only did the counseled group show a 44 percent reduction in violent crime over the yearlong intervention, but the poorest performing students significantly raised their grades, often by a full letter. The poorest performing students showed the largest gains.

Program organizers said government investment in the program would be very cost-effective. “The program cost around $1,100 per participant,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab, “while its impacts on criminal behavior generated benefits to society that are valued on the order of $3,600 to $34,000 per participant, depending on how we measure the costs of crime.”

While youth-on-youth violence remains a staple fare for nightly newscasts and television crime dramas, the reality is that violence among youths, including minority youths, has been dropping for decades. A new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday showed that total violent crimes against kids aged 12 to 17, which includes homicides, assaults and rapes, fell in 174,854 incidents or 7.2 per 1,000 kids in 2010. That was not only a 35 percent reduction from 2009, it was about one-fifth the rate of the 1980s, when the crack cocaine epidemic began and rates soared beyond 40 per 1,000 kids every year.

Minorities are also benefiting from the trend. African-American youths suffered 14 incidents per 1,000 kids in 2010. While that’s twice the overall rate, it had fallen 23 percent from the prior year and was well below its peak of 77 incidents per 1,000 kids in 1990.

Sociologists and social theorists on both the left and right have been flummoxed to come up with reasons for the national drop in violent crime, which, counter-intuitively, is sharpest during economic downturns. In 2010, for the first time in 45 years, homicide wasn’t even listed in the top 15 causes of death in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2010, homicides fell 76 percent in New York, 70 percent in Los Angeles and 49 percent in Chicago.

Explanations depend on the ideology of the theorist. They include the ebbing of the crack cocaine epidemic; stricter gun control laws; more readily available abortions; and higher incarceration rates with longer sentences that keep more would-be criminals off the streets. Yet countries that have not experienced any of those factors have also experienced falling crime rates in recent decades, including among the young.

Still, it’s no consolation to officials whose communities are still being ravaged by youth violence and are looking for solutions. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy praised the findings of the Crime Lab study. “This study has proven that prevention is possible,” he told the press conference where the findings were unveiled.