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date: 26 June 2019

The Science and Politics of Crime Prevention: Toward a New Crime Policy

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents a new crime policy that shows a greater balance between crime control and crime prevention. It takes a look at the key features and the relevance of evidence based policy and prevention science. The next section studies a number of the most urgent political challenges that face crime prevention. This article ends by making a case for a new crime policy.

Keywords: new crime policy, crime control, crime prevention, evidence based policy, prevention science, political challenges

The first three parts of this volume establish that crime prevention is a theoretically sound, feasible, highly effective, and worthwhile approach to reducing crime. Operating outside of the confines of the formal justice system, it is in many respects a socially progressive approach. It is also considered the fourth pillar of crime reduction, alongside the institutions of police, courts, and corrections (Waller 2006). For sure, each of the major strategies of developmental, community, and situational crime prevention has its own strengths, and the evidence base is stronger in some areas than in others. Some of the essays in this fourth and final part of the volume rightly note that the work is by no means complete. More attention needs to be paid to how crime-prevention programs are implemented and disseminated for wider public use, even moving toward a science of implementation. There also needs to be greater efforts to ensure that these programs are evaluated with the most rigorous methods that are feasible.

It is also important to recognize that crime prevention does not exist in a vacuum. Our organization of crime prevention into the three distinct strategies of (p. 509) developmental, community, and situational by no means precludes their integration or combination as part of a package of measures. Indeed, this combination is at the heart of community crime prevention, and it is a core feature of comprehensive partnership models like Communities That Care (Hawkins et al. 2009). The integration of different prevention strategies has even been the focus of research (see Welsh and Farrington 1998, 2011b).

Crime prevention is also subject to the political realities and whims of the day. For example, there are many different government priorities, such as military defense spending, environmental protection, or healthcare reform, which are competing for scarce public resources. National polls may show that the public is more concerned about issues other than crime. Politicians may be worried about being perceived as soft on crime by supporting prevention instead of law-and-order measures (Gest 2001). Another factor is the short time horizons of politicians (Tonry and Farrington 1995), which makes programs that show results only in the longer term rather unappealing to those who come up for election every few years. All of these are important considerations that have a direct bearing on whether or not crime prevention will be given its deserved priority.

Within the context of these and other political considerations and the science of crime prevention, this essay argues for a new crime policy—one that strikes a greater balance between crime prevention and crime control. Several observations and conclusions emerge:

  • Prevention science and evidence-based policy are two contemporary developments that have strengthened crime prevention. Each is concerned that the highest standards of science are used to advance knowledge and improve public policy.

  • The linkages between research and policy are sometimes less than clear, with evaluation influence on policy taking a number of different routes. The imposed use of evaluation seems especially promising.

  • Crime prevention faces a number of unique challenges, including concern by politicians that they will be labeled soft on crime for their support of prevention and the short time horizon of politicians. The good news is that these challenges can be overcome.

  • Crime prevention is an important component of an overall strategy to reduce crime. Striking a greater balance between crime prevention and crime control will go a long way toward building a safer, more sustainable society.

The organization of this essay is as follows. Section I discusses key features and the importance of prevention science and evidence-based policy. Section II looks at some of the most pressing political challenges confronting crime prevention. It also explores some opportunities for overcoming these challenges and changing the status quo. Section III makes the case for a new crime policy.

(p. 510) I. Prevention Science and Evidence-Based Policy

Prevention science and evidence-based policy are two contemporary developments that have strengthened crime prevention. Both are best understood as frameworks that can be applied across a wide range of contexts, settings, and populations. At their core, each is concerned that the highest standards of science are used to advance knowledge and improve public policy.

Prevention science has its roots in public health and begins with a commitment to prevention that is grounded in the developmental epidemiology of specific health or social problems. In the case of youth violence prevention, for example, “prevention science has provided a bridge between an understanding of how chronic violence develops and how prevention programs can interrupt that development” (Dodge 2001, p. 63). Only the highest quality methods of scientific investigation are employed. Prospective longitudinal studies are used to identify the most important risk factors for offending. Randomized experimental designs are used to evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of prevention programs designed to tackle these factors. Prevention science is also characterized by a number of “logically sequential stages in the general development of prevention programs” (Dodge 2001, p. 64).

Prevention science is by no means restricted to prevention in the first instance; it is equally applicable to interventions designed to reduce offending among high-risk populations or reoffending by adjudicated youth. The idea of an alternative, non–criminal justice response to the prevention of delinquency and offending is a crucial element in the mission of prevention science. Its influence on crime prevention can be found in its adherence to the highest scientific standards, its effort to base prevention on epidemiology, and its focus on the process of taking prevention programs to scale and studying how to mitigate the problem of attenuation of program effects (Welsh, Sullivan, and Olds 2010).

An evidence-based approach to crime policy embraces prevention science’s commitment to the use of the most scientifically valid studies to evaluate programs. What it adds is the utilization of accumulated scientific research evidence on effectiveness. It seeks to increase the influence of research on policy.

At the heart of the evidence-based model is the notion that “we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts” (Sherman 1998, p. 4). Use of opinions instead of facts to guide crime policy may cause iatrogenic effects (McCord 2003), may lead to the implementation of programs that do not work at all, may waste scarce public resources (Drake, Aos, and Miller 2009), and may divert policy attention from the most important crime priorities of the day (Mears 2010).

Support for an evidence-based approach to crime policy in the United States and elsewhere is growing (Welsh and Farrington 2011a). This growth has been fostered by a number of recent developments, including a movement toward an evidence-based (p. 511) approach in other disciplines such as medicine (Millenson 1997), education (Mosteller and Boruch 2002), and the social sciences more generally (Sherman 2003); large-scale reviews of “what works” in crime prevention and criminal justice (Sherman et al. 1997, 2006); and, most recently, the establishment of the Campbell Collaboration and its Crime and Justice Group, which aims to carry out and disseminate reviews of the effectiveness of criminological interventions (Farrington, Weisburd, and Gill 2011).

The US interest, as well as the interest of many other western countries, in an evidence-based approach to crime policy may be said to have begun with the release of Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising, by Lawrence Sherman and his colleagues (1997). This report was commissioned by the US Congress as an independent, scientifically rigorous assessment of more than $4 billion worth of federally sponsored anti-crime programs. Using a scientific methods scale to rate program evaluations combined with a vote-counting review method, they drew conclusions about the effects of the full range of crime prevention and criminal justice measures.

The evidence-based approach has had some interesting influences thus far on how crime prevention is viewed in the United States. The Preventing Crime report and its subsequent public and scholarly attention served to (ever so slightly) shift the debate away from the perception that support for crime prevention is tantamount to being soft on crime, which was at the heart of the opposition to the prevention spending in the 1994 crime bill (see Welsh and Farrington this volume). The report put the focus squarely on what scientific evidence had to say about effectiveness. It left no room for moralizing about crime or politicizing what works or does not work; it sought to make the facts—arrived at by scrupulous evaluation—the centerpiece of the policymaking processes.

II. Political Challenges and Some Remedies

Integral to the evidence-based paradigm, whether in the context of crime prevention, policing, sentencing, or correctional treatment, is the notion that decision makers are rational actors who will consider the best available information in making public policy. This is not to suggest that in the case of the release of new scientific evidence—showing that a crime-reduction policy works, does not work, or causes harm—government or political leaders will immediately embrace the evidence and change policies wholesale. It is, of course, wholly naïve to think that the evidence base on the effectiveness of a particular program or strategy will be the sole influence on policy. There are many considerations involved in the policymaking process. Some of these were touched upon above, and they range from more global ones about the relative importance of crime in society to particular views or biases held about one approach compared with another.

(p. 512) What is really at issue here is the need to increase the influence of research on policy or, in a manner of speaking, put systematic research evidence at center stage in the policymaking (and political) process. In addition to the above considerations, we must also be mindful that the linkages between research and policy are sometimes less than clear, with evaluation influence on policy taking a number of different routes. This is a central finding from the research utilization literature (Tonry and Green 2003).

As part of this literature, Carol Weiss and her colleagues (2005) have delineated a number of ways that evaluation research can exert influence on policy decisions. The one that is most applicable to evidence-based policy is what the authors refer to as “imposed use.” In this case, state or federal government agencies mandate that for any local program to receive funding it first needs to be evidence-based. This usually comes in the form of a list of best practices that are put together and approved by the agency. One example is the “list of exemplary and promising prevention programs” of the US Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. Programs not on this list are not eligible for government funding. Research by Weiss and her colleagues (2008) on the application of this list with respect to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and other school-based substance-abuse prevention programs showed some advantages and shortcomings. In concluding that the imposed use of evaluation is in need of some tinkering, the researchers were also clear in asserting that, “giving evaluation more clout is a worthwhile way to increase the rationality of decision making” (Weiss et al. 2008, p. 29).

This last point is further support for our contention that the movement toward rational and evidence-based crime policy is here to stay. It does not appear to be yet another fad or fleeting idea in the annals of crime policy. While there remains much to be done to move systematic evidence to center stage in the policymaking process, the good news is that this movement is well under way. In England and Wales, there is a correctional services accreditation panel that specifies accredited programs that can be used in prison and probation settings (see McGuire 2001).

Another challenge that confronts crime prevention is the worry by politicians that they may be perceived as soft on crime by supporting prevention instead of law-and-order measures. As Michael Tonry (2011, pp. 139–40) reminds us, this view has persisted despite two decades of declining crime rates and increasing imprisonment rates, and is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. It is rooted in a number of belief systems. One of these involves entrenched, moralistic views about crime. Here, crime is seen as evil, with redemption only achievable through extreme state-sanctioned deprivations of liberty, sometimes including even the death penalty. There is no room for prevention. It is held that the general deterrent effect of harsh sanctions will be sufficient to persuade others from embarking on a life of crime. The moral reformers of the 17th and 18th centuries would surely be proud.

Another view equates crime prevention with social welfare. Like the dismantling of federal welfare in the 1990s, and the present concerns about President Obama’s (p. 513) healthcare reform, crime prevention, particularly developmental and community measures, is seen as just another taxpayer-subsidized handout that is not deserved.

The most widespread justification for the concern about being seen as soft on crime is that politicians think that citizens are punishment oriented. Politicians who support get-tough responses to crime (and rebuke prevention) have long claimed to have the full backing of the general public, and that it is indeed the public that demands more punitive sanctions such as military-style boot camps, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes laws. To be sure, there is public support for get-tough responses to crime, especially violent acts. But this support does not reach the levels often claimed and, more important, is not as high when punishment is compared to alternatives such as rehabilitation or treatment for offenders or early childhood or youth prevention programs (Cullen et al. 2007). This exaggeration of the punitiveness of the general public on the part of politicians and others has become known as the “mythical punitive public” (Roberts 2004). Indeed, new research provides evidence to substantiate that the “punitive public” is mythical rather than actual—that is, citizens are highly supportive of crime prevention and are even willing to pay more in taxes to support these programs compared to other responses (Roberts and Hastings this volume).

Encouragingly, the evidence-based movement may go some way toward breaking down or tempering the soft-on-crime concern. Instead of emotions and opinions, facts and evidence are becoming the new currency in federal, state, and local debates about crime policy (Greenwood 2006). There is an emphasis on taking account of financial costs and benefits in formulating public policies. This is happening for many reasons, including a renewed commitment to science in the United States and the dedicated work of various international and national groups, such as the Campbell Collaboration, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and the Association for the Advancement of Evidence-Based Practice. It may take some time, but the slogan “get tough on crime” may one day be replaced with “get smart on crime” or “reduce crime in the most cost-effective way.” The public should demand that its tax dollars are invested more efficiently.

Yet another challenge that confronts crime prevention, especially developmental and sometimes community approaches, is that the benefits from reduced crime will not be apparent for a number of years—at least until children reach adolescence. This can conflict with the short time horizons of politicians—that is, programs that show results only in the longer term can be unappealing to those who have to face reelection every few years. One potential remedy for this situation is to educate politicians about the many other desirable effects that these prevention programs can produce in the short-term. For example, preschool intellectual enrichment, child skills training, and parent training programs show improvements in school readiness and school performance on the part of the children, greater employment and educational opportunities for parents, and increased family stability (Lösel and Bender this volume; Piquero and Jennings this volume; Schindler and Yoshikawa this volume). These short-term benefits alone can translate into substantial cost savings for government (Farrington and Welsh 2007).

(p. 514) The problem of the short time horizons of politicians is not restricted to crime policy. Jens Ludwig (2012) suggests applying ideas from other policy areas to crime prevention. For example, in the area of government budgeting, this same problem has led to calls for “‘intergenerational accounting’—the idea that we should think about government expenditure and revenues as flows over long periods of time, and make clear to the public the impact that different policy decisions will have on these long-term flows” (p. 37). Another suggestion is to expand the definition of gross domestic product (GDP) in order to account for nonmonetary considerations, such as the “value of a country’s stock of environmental quality” (p. 37). When people invest, they are not necessarily looking for quick results but for long-term benefits. Government policymakers should also be able to defer gratification, plan for the future, and think about what legacy they are leaving the next generation.

III. A New Crime Policy

In a recent thought experiment, Steven Durlauf and Daniel Nagin (2011) argue that a reduction in the use of imprisonment can lead to a reduction in crime rates. This is possible, they contend, if the cost savings from this policy change are allocated to hot-spots policing and other effective policing strategies (see Skogan and Frydl 2004; Braga and Weisburd 2010). This is an important piece of scholarship and it has great relevance to US crime policy. For sure, policing and corrections are the two most dominant crime-reduction approaches in this country, accounting for $168 billion (in 2006 dollars), or almost four-fifths of annual criminal justice spending (Perry 2008). Completely absent, however, is any consideration of the benefit that crime prevention holds for lowering crime rates and reducing government spending on criminal justice.

To be fair, the authors make passing reference to the effectiveness of early childhood development programs in reducing criminality (e.g., Piquero et al. 2009). Nonetheless, what makes this a glaring omission from their study is that what is really needed is a crime policy that strikes a greater balance between prevention and control. Policing may indeed represent a better alternative to the present practice of mass incarceration in the United States, but it is often another form of crime control, dealing with offenders after the fact. In some respects, these arguments are analogous to shifting resources from increasing incarceration rates to correctional treatment without any plan to stop the very development of offenders and their subsequent flow into the system. There needs to be a focus on the front end, without which we surely are just playing at the margins.

Some studies have compared the effectiveness of crime-prevention and crime-control strategies. The most well known of these was conducted by the RAND Corporation (Greenwood et al. 1998). It assessed the cost-effectiveness (i.e., serious crimes prevented per $1 million spent, using 1993 dollars) of California’s three-strikes (p. 515) law compared with four prevention and intervention strategies with demonstrated efficacy in reducing crime: a combination of home visiting and day care; parent training; graduation incentives; and monitoring and supervising delinquent youths. Each of these alternatives was based on well-known experiments with small to moderately large sample sizes.

The first step in the modeling process was the estimation of program costs and crime-reduction effectiveness of the four alternative interventions. In order to conduct fair comparisons among these interventions and with the three-strikes law, three main “penalties” were assigned to the former. These were: (a) targeting: the proportion of the population targeted by the program who are likely to become involved in criminal behavior (e.g., children of low-income, teenage mothers for the home visiting/day-care program); (b) decay: the loss of effectiveness after treatment ends; and (c) scale-up: the decrease in program effects from expanding the program statewide (Greenwood et al. 1998, p. 16).

The study found that parent training and graduation incentives were the most cost-effective of the five programs, while home visiting/day care was the least cost-effective. The number of serious crimes prevented per $1 million was estimated at 258 for graduation incentives, 157 for parent training, 72 for delinquent supervision, 60 for the three-strikes law, and 11 for home visiting/day-care.1 It is important to comment briefly on the poor showing of the home visiting/day-care program. The small number of crimes prevented per $1 million is attributable to two key factors (a third factor is discussed below): first, the long-term delay in realizing an impact on crime; and second, the high cost of delivering the services, particularly the day-care component, which was estimated at $6,000 per child per year over a four-year period.

The other major study—a thought experiment like Durlauf and Nagin (2011)—was carried out by John Donohue and Peter Siegelman (1998). The authors set out to investigate if the “social resources that will be expended a decade or more from now on incarcerating today’s youngsters could instead generate roughly comparable levels of crime prevention if they were spent today on the most promising social programs” (1998, p. 31, emphasis in original). These included a range of early prevention programs and the national Job Corps program; and most of the estimates were based on well-known experiments or quasi-experiments with small to large sample sizes.

The first step involved estimating the crime reduction and cost associated with a continuation of US prison policy of the day. On the basis of a 50 percent increase in the prison population over a 15-year period (assumed from the level in December 1993 and trends at the time), it was estimated that this policy would cost $5.6 to $8 billion (in 1993 dollars) and result in a 5 to 15 percent reduction in crime. The next steps involved estimating the percentage of the cohort of three-year-olds who could be served by allocating the saved prison costs (the $5.6 to $8 billion) to the different social programs and then estimating the crime-reduction benefits that could be achieved by selected programs under a range of targeting conditions (i.e., the worst 6 percent of delinquents, males only, and young black males only). Two (p. 516) early developmental prevention programs were selected: the Perry Preschool project (Schweinhart, Barnes, and Weikart 1993) and the Syracuse University Family Development Research program (Lally, Mangione, and Honig 1988). It is at this stage that the authors applied a scaling-up penalty of 50 percent to each program. This had the result of lowering Perry’s crime-reduction effectiveness from 40 to 20 percent and Syracuse’s effectiveness from 70 to 35 percent.

In the final analysis, it was found that both prevention programs could achieve reductions in crime that were within the range of what was expected from a continuation of the prison policy of the day (5 to 15 percent) even if they were allocated the lower bound amount that would have been spent on prisons ($5.6 billion). This was considered the worst-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, which did not include the scaling-up penalty and allocated the upper bound amount of prison spending ($8 billion), the Perry and Syracuse programs produced crime reductions of 21 and 26 percent, respectively—better than increasing the prison population.

Interestingly, Nagin (2001a, 2001b) reexamined these two studies. While he praised their innovative methods, one of his main concerns was that they failed to consider the full potential benefits of the early prevention programs. By its very nature, developmental crime prevention is designed to improve individual functioning across multiple domains. Indeed, this is precisely what extant evaluations of the included programs showed. But Greenwood et al. and Donohue and Siegelman only considered the benefits following from lower rates of delinquent and criminal activity. Educational, employment, family, health, and other important benefits were not taken into account, which had the effect of greatly reducing the true economic return to society of these programs. A more recent benefit-cost analysis by Donohue (2009) embraces this view; he concludes that “there is reason to believe that alternatives to incarceration might well be more socially attractive than our current reliance on incarceration as the predominant crime-fighting strategy”(p. 308).

These studies make a strong case for the need to strike a greater balance between crime prevention and crime control. But perhaps the strongest case for a balanced portfolio of prevention and control comes from the real-life policy experiment that is under way in Washington State. In 1997, the legislature commissioned the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to assess the effectiveness and economic efficiency of a range of crime prevention and criminal justice programs with the aim to “identify interventions that reduce crime and lower total costs to taxpayers and crime victims” (Aos, Barnoski, and Lieb 1998, p. 1). The researchers referred to their methodological approach as “bottom line” financial analysis, which they considered to parallel the approach used by investors who study rates of return on financial investments. The research began with a literature review of high-quality programs. A five-step analytical model was then used to estimate each program’s economic contribution.2

What started out as a highly rigorous yet fairly modest policy research initiative soon turned into the most comprehensive approach to develop evidence-based crime policy in the United States and one revered by other states and other countries (Greenwood 2006; Aldhous 2007). Following the Institute’s first set of reports, (p. 517) the legislature authorized a number of system-level randomized controlled trials of the most effective and cost-beneficial juvenile and adult intervention programs. The results of these trials helped to refine local practice and service delivery. By 2006, the Institute had systematically reviewed and analyzed 571 of the highest quality evaluations of crime-prevention and criminal justice programs, estimated the benefits and costs of effective programs, and “projected the degree to which alternative ‘portfolios’ of these programs could affect future prison construction needs, criminal justice costs, and crime rates in Washington” (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006, p. 1). This most recent work was commissioned by the legislature to address the projected need for two new state prisons by 2020 and possibly a third by 2030. Based on a moderate-to-aggressive portfolio of evidence-based crime-prevention programs (i.e., $63–$171 million expenditure in the first year), it was found that a significant amount of future prison construction costs could be avoided, about $2 billion saved by taxpayers, and crime rates lowered slightly (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006, p. 16).

In 2007, the Washington State legislature abandoned plans to build one of these two prisons and in its place approved a sizable spending package ($48 million) on evidence-based crime-prevention and intervention programs (Drake, Aos, and Miller 2009). What makes this initiative even more important is that it was a political decision that was made on the basis of scientific research. This research showed that other strategies were more effective than prison and would generate substantial financial savings to the Washington State government and taxpayers.

Building a safer, more sustainable society will require using the best available research evidence, overcoming political barriers, and striking a greater balance between crime prevention and crime control. This is within our reach and the work has already begun. In the most optimistic scenario, what Washington State is doing today the world will be doing tomorrow. But let’s be clear: without a sound focus on crime prevention, any crime policy will not be worth the paper it is written on.


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(1) . Crimes prevented were not calculated on a per annum basis. Instead they represent the predicted total effect produced by each program on each California birth cohort (an estimated 150,000 at-risk children born in California every year).

(2) . The first step of the model involves estimating each program’s “most likely practical application within the state’s justice or early intervention systems” (Aos, Barnoski, and Lieb 1998, p. 8). Step two looks at whether previously measured program results can be replicated in the state. Step three involves an assessment of program costs, estimated on the basis of what it would cost the Washington State government to implement a similar program (if the program was not already operating in the state). Step four involves monetizing each program’s effects on crime. Savings to the criminal justice system and crime victims are estimated. The final step involves calculating the economic contribution of the program, expressed as a benefit-to-cost ratio. Based on this, programs can be judged on their independent and comparative monetary value.