Alternatives I: Prevention

excerpted from the book

Crime and Punishment in America

Why solutions to America's most stubborn social crisis have not worked - and what will

by Elliott Currie

Henry Holt, 1998, paper


Given what we've learned about crime prevention in recent years, four priorities seem especially critical: preventing child abuse and neglect, enhancing children's intellectual and social development, providing support and guidance to vulnerable adolescents, and working intensively with juvenile offenders.


Child abuse is itself among the worst and most tragic of violent crimes. Nationwide, it results directly in up to 5,000 deaths per year, 18,000 permanent, severe disabilities, and 150,000 serious injuries. It is the fourth leading cause of death for American children aged one to four and second for black children that age.


The second priority in crime prevention is to expand and enhance the early intervention for children at risk of impaired cognitive development, behavior problems, and early failure in school. Once again, the "why" is not mysterious. The link between these troubles and later delinquency is depressingly consistent. Because these problems often show up very early in a child's life, many observers leap to the conclusion that some children are simply fated to fail. But the success of some of the best early-childhood programs gives a very different, and far more hopeful, picture.

By far the best known of these efforts is the Perry Preschool program-a legacy of the Great Society, begun during the early 1960s in a low-income, mainly black neighborhood in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Like most early-intervention programs, Perry was actually quite modest. Poor children aged three and four were enrolled in preschool for two and a half hours a day. In addition, their teachers visited the children and their mothers at home once a week, for about an hour and a half. Most of the children stayed in the program for two school years, a few for just one. The preschool curriculum was distinguished by its commitment to an "active learning approach, based heavily on the work of Jean Piaget. Children were not simply taught a predetermined body of material but were encouraged to plan their own activities and to explore the meaning of those activities with their teachers. This strategy- which was quite innovative at the time-was encouraged by a very low pupil-teacher ratio of about five to one.

The Perry project was also distinctive in the care with which the experiment was designed and evaluated. The project randomly assigned 123 neighborhood children to the program group or to a control group that did not attend the program. Dogged efforts to keep track of these children as they grew up -- including interviewing some in prison and dodging neighborhood gunfire to maintain contact with others-provided an extraordinarily complete record of the youngsters' progress over time. As of this writing, the evaluation has followed both groups until the youngest of the children were twenty-seven years old. The results are impressive; the Perry students were far more likely to be literate, off welfare, working and earning a decent living. They were only one-fifth as likely as the carefully matched control group to have become chronic criminal offenders (defined as having been arrested five or more times) and only about one-fourth as likely to have been arrested for drug related crimes.

The Perry program's results have been widely disseminated. But what makes them particularly striking is that they were achieved with such modest means, and with unusually high-risk children in a severely disadvantaged community.

Two profound limitations on early intervention as it is now practiced in the United States should make us especially wary of overpromising.

... unlike many other advanced societies, we cannot link our . early-intervention programs to national-level health care or family support systems that would allow us to provide services to children and families reliably throughout the course of childhood. (Hawaii which has a statewide health insurance system, represents a partial exception to this rule.) The absence of those systems means that our programs for children and families are usually unstable and short term; most, indeed, never get beyond the "pilot program" stage. It means that there is rarely any continuity between what we do for children in the preschool years and what, if anything, we do for them once they are old enough to enter regular schools-which helps to explain the tendency in even some of the best intervention programs for results to "fade" over time. It also means that the most effective programs must spend a great deal of their time and energy brokering basic support services that ought to be provided routinely through national policies. Above all, it means that most families that could benefit from such programs will never get them.

The situation is very different in many European countries, where home visiting is an integral part of national systems of health care accessible to all families. The specifics of home visiting-how often children are visited after birth, for example, and whether the visitors are public-health nurses, social workers, or paraprofessionals-vary among these countries. But in all of them, as Sheila Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn note, home visiting "links the family, as needed, to social services, income maintenance, housing, and other government programs." Home-visiting programs are universal, popular, and "generously supported." In Denmark, for example, home visiting is backed by a nationwide network of community maternal- and child-health clinics whose services are available to all families as a matter of right. Preschool programs, similarly, are widely available in most advanced European and Asian countries: close to 100 percent of French children are enrolled in such programs, as are more than 90 percent of children in Hong Kong and Japan. In most other developed countries, in short, systematic early intervention is one feature of a broader commitment to national health care and family policies. Without that commitment, we cannot make the most of the potential of preschool programs or home visiting in the United States.

A second, related limitation on early intervention is perhaps even more basic. In the United States, we have traditionally overestimated the capacity of essentially educational strategies to overcome the effects of endemic poverty, community disorganization, and economic insecurity. Too often, I suspect, we're tempted to overstate the potential of early intervention because it seems to offer a relatively painless-and indeed costless-way of solving the problems that beset poor children and their parents. But though the best early-intervention programs have been remarkably successful in improving lives, their effects are often overwhelmed by the social and economic deterioration that surrounds them.


One of the earliest programs for at-risk youth to show strong evidence of success was the federal Job Corps, an enduring legacy of the 1960s that, along with Head Start, is one of the only preventive programs that has survived, with significant funding, year after year. What set Job Corps apart from less successful programs was its strong emphasis on intensive skill training, coupled with a variety of supportive services for its participants. Evaluations showed that Job Corps significantly reduced violent crime among its graduates, and the savings thus achieved more than repaid the costs of the program.

Whether they are aimed at families with very young children, at impoverished high schoolers, or at teenaged offenders ... successful efforts ... have a number of things in common. They are preventive, rather than simply reactive; they emphasize building the strengths and capabilities of young people and their families, rather than simply treating their deficiencies or preaching virtue at them; they encourage productivity and responsibility; and they tackle concrete, real-world problems that undercut life chances and breed hostility, stress, and demoralization. Most of the successful programs are comprehensive-or what some would call "ecological": they address the multiple problems of children, youths, or families wherever they arise-in the family, the community, the health-care and school systems, and the housing and labor markets. They tend, insofar as possible, to deal with the roots of those problems, rather than just the symptoms, and they are typically inspired by some of the best thinking we have on the causes of violent crime, delinquency, or child maltreatment. Many of the best programs are also quite modest-and often inexpensive. Others are more intensive, and therefore cost more. But all of them pass the test of cost-effectiveness-especially when compared to the usual alternative of waiting for damaged children to become criminal adults, and then putting them in jail or prison.

Though this kind of calculation is inevitably somewhat speculative, the comparative figures are often stunning. The Quantum Opportunity Program for high-risk teenagers costs about $2,500 a year per participant; a year in one of the prisons run by the California Youth Authority costs about $32,O00. The Rand Corporation, a research organization not known for its radicalism, has calculated that some prevention programs-including parent training and early intervention with juvenile offenders-can "pay off" at a rate four or five times greater than California's three-strikes law.

But it is important to remember that there are no silver bullets-no magic program, whether aimed at preschoolers or adolescents, that could eliminate violence if we just "replicated" it often enough. Home-visiting programs have been described by a supporter as "necessary but not sufficient," and that can be said of all of these successful intervention efforts, singly and in combination. It is enormously heartening that, even within the current American reality of mass poverty, community disintegration, and economic insecurity, there is much we can do to increase the chances that children will grow up compassionate rather than predatory, loved rather than abused; that teens who get into trouble will be helped back onto a better path. But children and families live in the context of a larger economy and society that, all too often, can nullify even the best efforts to help those at risk. That doesn't mean such efforts are useless; it does mean that they must be linked to an attack on the larger forces that put children and their parents at risk in the first place. It is nowadays often said that either we don't know how to do this or that it would make little difference to the crime rate even if we did. But nowhere does the conservative argument depart more sharply from reality.

Crime and Punishment in America

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