Anti-Crime Efforts Often Found To Fall Short

By Jessica Portner — April 30, 1997 4 min read
Some of the nation’s most politically popular crime-prevention programs--from boot camps to alternative schools--often fail to thwart juvenile delinquency, the most exhaustive study of the country’s anti-crime efforts has found.

Many school-based anti-crime efforts are encouraging, but the least impressive educational approaches tend to attract the bulk of federal funds, according to the congressionally mandated study, “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising.”

“Programs tend to get funded not because of their merits, but because of the effectiveness of their advocates,” asserted Lawrence W. Sherman, the chairman of the department of criminology at the University of Maryland at College Park and the report’s lead author.

In the 600-page study that was given to Congress this month, a team of criminologists at the University of Maryland reviewed more than 500 existing studies to assess the effectiveness of more than $3 billion that the U.S. Department of Justice spends on crime prevention each year.

Some early-childhood programs in which workers conduct home visits with parents and their infants have been shown to have a lasting and positive impact on youths, the study says. The researchers also conclude that nongovernmental community-based mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, have been shown to help reduce illegal drug and alcohol use among teenagers.

Conversely, the report notes that highly regimented incarceration programs for juvenile offenders often fail to prevent participants from committing future crimes.

“Simply having a militaristic environment with a focus on discipline doesn’t work,” said Denise C. Gottfredson, one of the authors. But recidivism rates tend to drop when follow-up services in the community are provided, she said.

The report also questions the track record of some alternative schools for disruptive students, which are popular among many state leaders who are eager to offer teachers relief in the classroom. Although some alternative schools designed for severe disciplinary cases have produced “remarkable improvements” in students’ behavior and academic performance, others have actually fostered delinquency, the report says. “Whenever you pull all the most delinquent kids together, unless the program is strong, it’s likely to increase delinquency,” Ms. Gottfredson contended.

The researchers also found that the best-financed school-based strategies for preventing crime tend to be mediocre. The researchers chiefly criticize the popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education program and an effort called Gang Resistance Education and Training. DARE, which is used in thousands of public schools, enlists law-enforcement officers to deliver anti-drug messages to students. GREAT, which is financed in part by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, also employs police to drive home an anti-violence message in schools.

The trouble with DARE and GREAT, Ms. Gottfredson said, is that they both use didactic methods instead of teaching children the social skills they need to resist drugs and stay out of trouble.

Whatever lessons are learned in the classroom, the surest route to deterring crime in schools is the creation of a disciplined environment, the University of Maryland’s Mr. Sherman said.

No Shortcuts

Few experts outside of Congress had read the research as of last week. Some, however, were troubled by specific conclusions.

Thomas L. Schneider, the special agent in charge of the GREAT program for ATF, dismissed the claim that the program was ineffective. “We don’t just sit in a classroom and demonstrate negative activities. We lead kids through role-playing so they can act out the preferred behavior,” he said.

Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for DARE America, based in Inglewood, Calif., added that the research fails to register changes DARE has made in recent years.

Ultimately, many federally sponsored crime-prevention programs fail because they don’t address the underlying economic and social factors that contribute to a violent culture, some state leaders said.

“We will never get a handle on delinquency until we address the root problems a kid has,” said Jerry Regier, Oklahoma’s secretary of health and human services and the former director of the U.S. Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. “Until the federal government is willing to recognize these things, you’re just putting Band-Aids on,” he said.

In their recommendations to Congress, the authors suggest that federal resources be targeted to more urban neighborhoods where youth violence is concentrated.

State leaders plagued by urban crime welcomed that suggestion. “Given how expensive these programs are and how strapped most states are, we can’t do it all,” said John Truscott, the spokesman for Gov. John Engler of Michigan.

The authors suggest that Congress pay for rigorous scientific critiques so the federal government can nurture efforts that work.

But Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public-health practice at Harvard University, warned against the search for any quick solutions. “Knowing what’s effective once a kid’s in trouble is important, but there’s no one cause or solution, and there’s no shortcut around building healthy communities.”