Crime Falls, But Not Everywhere

Pointer  Online Extra

June 2008

Questions of Roger K. Przybylski, RKC Group, on report What Works:  Effective Recidivism Reduction and Risk-Focused Prevention Programs, (February 2008) prepared for the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

SL: Tell me the general purpose, focus and methods of your research for this report.

More than 30 years of scientific research has created a body of knowledge that policymakers can draw upon to develop and deliver crime prevention programs that are both effective and cost-beneficial. The report  tried to answer two important questions: What correctional interventions are effective at reducing offender recidivism?  And, what programs are effective at preventing people from ever engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior to begin with?

My method was a comprehensive and systematic review of the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of correctional interventions and early, risk-focused prevention programs. To ensure that the report’s conclusions were trustworthy, I considered both the quality and consistency of the evidence and focused on highly rigorous research, particularly systematic reviews and meta-analyses that synthesized the evaluation results from many studies and programs.  I also focused on crime or criminal behavior outcomes—that is the direct public safety benefits that a program produces. Programs that work are defined as those that are effective at reducing recidivism or preventing criminal conduct later in life, based on rigorous scientific study.

SL: You called the relationship between incarceration and crime "complex.”  Do studies indicate that states significantly reduce crime by building and filling prisons?

No, they do not.  Building and filling prisons does not necessarily result in a significant public safety benefit. Crime rates actually increased in the late 1980s when a significant increase in incarceration occurred and states with the highest incarceration rates are not necessarily more crime-free than others. Research also has consistently shown that the drop in crime that most jurisdictions experienced in the 1990s is primarily due to factors other than incarceration. What’s more, research is beginning to shed light on the unintended consequences of imprisonment. High rates of incarceration tend to be concentrated in certain communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. Over time, the incarceration of large numbers of young adult men in these communities weakens family structures and compromises informal social controls. As a result, crime increases. Research also has documented that children suffer a host of negative consequences upon parental incarceration. Children of incarcerated parents are at an increased risk of abuse and neglect, and they are far more likely than their peers to engage in criminal behavior and be imprisoned themselves later in life.

I am not suggesting that putting offenders behind bars fails altogether to impact crime. On the contrary, incapacitation undeniably prevents some crimes from being committed in the community, and the conclusions reached by several highly rigorous studies are remarkably consistent in finding that a 10 percent higher incarceration rate was associated with a 2 percent to 4 percent reduction in the crime rate. But the impact of incarceration on crime largely depends on who goes to prison and for what length of time. Incarceration has a far greater impact and return on investment when it is used for violent and high-rate offenders. The empirical evidence is increasingly clear, however, that the increased use of incarceration for low-rate, nonviolent offenders prevents and deters few crimes. Policy makers also have to recognize that incarceration become less effective at reducing crime as the prison population grows. The reason for this is simple: locking up more and more people eventually leads to the incarceration of less serious offenders. When that happens, costs increase without a commensurate increase in public safety. And increasing the incarceration rate by 10 percent to achieve a 4 percent reduction in the crime rate is far more expensive today than it was years ago.  Public safety is undeniably one of the most important functions government provides, but given the escalating costs of prisons and their impact on other important state services, such as education and health care, it is reasonable to ask whether there are innovative and more cost-effective ways to protect the public and administer justice. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently estimated that, over 22 years, a moderate expansion of evidence-based programs in that state could save taxpayers about $1.9 billion through avoided prison and other criminal justice system costs.

SL: You found strong research support for offenders being able to rehabilitate, given good treatment and other programming.  What sorts of treatments are good investments for states?

I’d begin by emphasizing almost everyone sent to prison eventually returns to the community. Since record numbers of offenders are going to prison, it’s a mathematical fact that record numbers are also coming out. Offenders released from prison are arrested at rates far higher than the general population, and roughly half will be back in prison within three years of their release, so perhaps nothing is more important for public safety than the successful reentry of prisoners to society. Successful reentry reduces recidivism and victimization. It also saves public resources. But successful reentry requires more than supervision by a parole officer. It requires treatment and transitional services, selected for individuals on the basis of rigorous assessment.

The scientific evidence is unmistakably clear that a variety of programs, properly targeted and well-implemented, can reduce recidivism. One of the key findings of the past 30 years of research is that effective interventions share a common set of features. They are intensive, and they target multiple "criminogenic" needs of high risk offenders—things like substance abuse, lack of education, and antisocial attitudes.  These are factors that are related to continued criminal offending and that can be changed.

Specific interventions that reduce recidivism include education and vocational training; substance abuse treatment, particularly therapeutic communities and aftercare in the community; drug courts; and cognitive-behavioral programs.  Family-based programs that address multiple causes of delinquency are effective at reducing recidivism and other problem behaviors in juvenile offenders. Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional-Treatment Foster Care and Multi-Systemic Therapy are examples. Certain types of sex offender treatment approaches can and do work. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and modified therapeutic communities have been shown to achieve at least modest reductions in sexual and general recidivism.

Finally, it is important to underscore that a large number of offenders in the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness.   There are jails in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York that  have more residents with mental illness than any hospital in the United States.  These offenders present significant challenges for the criminal justice system, starting with detecting mental illness and then meeting their treatment and housing needs. Successful reentry of offenders with mental health needs is a greater challenge too.  But mental health treatments like diversion, institutional and transition programs are effective.  Research indicates that crisis intervention teams, assertive community treatment, and modified therapeutic communities for offenders with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders work.

SL:  You also present evidence that crime and delinquency can be prevented.  What sorts of strategies have the best research support?

While crime prevention takes many forms, risk-focused programs delivered to children and often their families can produce long-lasting public safety benefits.  The idea is to use risk-focused approaches to prevent crime, much like they have been used to prevent heart attack and stroke.  Risk factors such as child abuse and neglect, poor educational performance, and poor child rearing practices, to name just a few, increase the likelihood that a young person will engage in problem behavior later in life, and they help explain why young people differ in their long-term criminal potential. Children are often resilient in the face of one or two risk factors, but research has shown that exposure to a greater number of risk factors significantly increases the risk of crime, violence and substance abuse.

Risk-focused prevention has been applied with great success in medicine and public health. In the criminal justice setting, however, the merit and value of early prevention is sometimes overlooked because the full payoff is not realized for many years. But early, risk-focused prevention works. Effective programs reduce victimization and the pool of offenders entering juvenile and criminal justice systems.

There are effective prevention programs to counteract risk factors at every stage of a child’s development, from birth through adolescence. Nurse home visits with first-time mothers and pre-school learning programs both are highly effective. The Nurse-Family Partnership program developed by Dr. David Olds, for example, which is delivered during the pre-natal period and first year of a child’s life, significantly reduces criminal conduct for both children and their mothers. It also reduces child abuse and neglect. Pre-school programs such as the High/Scope curriculum and the Chicago Child Parent Center program also prevent delinquency.  Fifteen years after leaving the program, at age 24, children who participated in the Chicago Child Parent Center program had significantly lower rates of juvenile and violent arrests than non-program participants.

Parent Management Training also works. PMT programs are designed to teach parents how to change and effectively manage behavior of children as young as age 4 and as old as age 14.   Research shows that poor parenting practices are an important cause of a child’s inappropriate behavior, and that positive parenting can prompt behavior changes.   School- and community-based prevention programs are quite popular, yet the evidence regarding their effectiveness at preventing delinquency is at best mixed.   Other school-based programs that use cognitive behavioral methods to build self control and social competency in children are effective. The Olweus Bullying Prevention program, which mobilizes the entire school against bullying, is an example. High-quality after school and mentoring programs that provide positive youth development opportunities, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters, prevent delinquency, too.

SL:  Finally, you refer to program fidelity—that besides identifying and incorporating evidence-based approaches, states have to properly implement and oversee programs. What does this say to policy makers about building a criminal justice system capable of reducing crime and recidivism?

Investing in evidence-based programs can increase public safety while simultaneously curbing correctional costs. Many of the programs described in the report are not only effective, but they pay for themselves in terms of reducing costs to taxpayers.

But knowing what works is only the first step. Evidence-based programs still have to be implemented properly in order to realize their potential. Research shows that thorough implementation and competent program delivery results in larger reductions in recidivism, for example, while partial implementation and poor delivery can degrade a program’s effectiveness or even increase recidivism. Changing an evidence-based program to meet local needs or to achieve a sense of ownership, a common practice that is known as adaptation, can also have negative effects. Adaptation is likely to be advantageous only when it is highly strategic, pursued with extreme caution and monitored to prevent harmful effects.

All of this underscores the importance of ongoing data collection and program evaluation. While evaluation certainly can be used to discover and document program effects, it also can be used to identify problems and deviations from planned designs.

Evaluation as part of program development and operations helps resolve problems and make mid-course corrections that contribute to success.

Building a strong base of support for evidence-based programs is also essential.  Transforming organizational culture requires leadership that provides a consistent message followed by actions and resources that reinforce the message.  Adequate resources for all aspects of program planning and implementation also have to be obtained. This includes ensuring that staff has the skills and experience that are needed for program delivery.

In closing, I’d like to make two final points. First, a commitment to evidence-based programming should not prevent innovation. Many of the programs identified in this report began as new, untested ideas. Policy makers and practitioners should have the latitude to develop and try new approaches, provided they are thoughtfully conceived and subject to objective evaluation. Second, one of the key lessons learned from both research and practice is that crime is a complex problem. There are no simple solutions and no quick fixes. Reducing victimization and protecting the public requires a variety entities to collaborate and cooperate.  Strategies that span different agencies, different components of the justice system, and even different disciplines are likely to be the most successful.

The full report of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice,  funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, is at

 Crime Falls, But Not Everywhere June 2008 Article