An effective way to reduce violent crimes?
From an article on Vox
What if someone told you that you could dramatically reduce the crime rate without resorting to coercive policing or imprisonment and at very little cost?
A research study, published in May 2022, authored by Professor Chris Blattman, an economist/political scientist at the University of Chicago and others provides experimental evidence that offering at-risk men a few weeks of behavioural therapy plus a bit of cash reduces the future risk of crime and violence, even 10 years after the intervention.
In 2009, Chris was hanging out with an acquaintance in Liberia named Johnson Borh, who showed him around the capital city of Monrovia. Since Chris studies crime and violence, Borh took him to visit the pickpockets, drug sellers, and others living on the margins of society. Along the way, they kept running into guys who were sitting on street corners, eking out a meagre living by shining shoes or selling clothes. When these men spotted Borh, they’d run to give him a hug. Chris recalls that when he asked the men how they knew Borh, they’d say something like, “I used to be like them,” and point to the nearby pickpockets or drug sellers. “But then I went through Borh’s program.”
That’s how Chris learned about the program Borh had been running for 15 years: Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia. It offered men who were at high risk for violent crime eight weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT, as it’s called, is a popular, evidence-based method of dealing with issues like anxiety, but Borh adapted the therapeutic strategy to deal with issues like violence and crime.
Meeting with a counsellor in groups of around 20, the men would practice specific behavioural changes, like managing anger and exerting self-control. They’d also rehearse trying on a new identity unconnected to their past behaviour, by changing their clothes and haircuts and working to reintegrate themselves into mainstream society through community sports, banks, and more.
Chris wanted to formally study just how effective this kind of program could be. He decided to run a big randomized controlled trial with 999 of the most dangerous men in Monrovia, recruited on the street. The 999 Liberian men were split into four groups. Some received CBT, while others got $200 in cash. Another group got the CBT plus the cash, and finally, there was a control group that got neither. A month after the intervention, both the therapy group and the therapy-plus-cash group were showing positive results. A year after the intervention, the positive effects on those who got therapy alone had faded a bit, but those who got therapy plus cash were still showing huge impacts: crime and violence were down about 50 percent.
Ten years later, he tracked down the original men from the study and re-evaluated them. Amazingly, crime and violence were still down by about 50 percent in the therapy-plus-cash group. Chris estimates that there were 338 fewer crimes per participant over 10 years. Given that it had cost just $530 per participant to implement the program, that works out to $1.50 per crime avoided.
But why did the combination of CBT and some cash work?
The most plausible hypothesis, according to Chris, is that the $200 in cash enabled the men to pursue a few months of legitimate business activity — say, shoe shining — after the therapy ended. That meant a few extra months of getting to cement their new non-criminal identity and behavioral changes.
Inspired by the program in Liberia, Chicago has been implementing a similar but more intensive program called READI. Over the course of 18 months, men in the city’s most violent districts participate in therapy sessions in the morning, followed by job training in the afternoon. The rationale for the latter is that in a place with a well-developed labour market like Chicago, the best way to improve earnings is probably to get people into the market, whereas in Liberia, the labour market is much less efficient, so it made more sense to offer people cash.
Early results show that:
READI reduces social harms from violence. Over the 20 months after men become eligible for the program, it is estimated that each READI participant reduces harm to society by $185,000.
READI did not decrease all forms of serious violence. READI participants are less likely to be involved in shootings and homicides, but they are not any less likely to be arrested for other less serious forms of violence.
READI resulted in large proportional reductions in the most severe and socially costly forms of violence. READI participants had 63% fewer arrests and 19% fewer victimizations for shootings and homicides. This was even higher for those participants referred by community outreach organizations.
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From an article on Vox, 07/09/2022