Dr. Felton Earls of the Harvard School of Public Health for more than a decade has been running one of the longest and most expensive studies in the history of criminology, notes the New York Times. Earls, 61, argues that the most important influence on a locality’s crime rate is neighbors’ willingness to act for one another’s benefit, particularly for children. The Times says the Project on Human Development In Chicago neighborhoods has compelling evidence to back up the argument.
Will local teen hanging out on the corner be allowed to intimidate passers-by, or will they be dispersed? Will a vacant lot become a breeding ground for rats and drug dealers, or a community garden? Such issues can affect the crime rate more than race, income, family, and individual temperament. “It is far and away the most important research insight in the last decade,” said Jeremy Travis, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s crime research arm from 1994 to 2000. “I think it will shape policy for the next generation.” Francis T. Cullen, past president of the American Society of Criminology, said “it is perhaps the most important research undertaking ever embarked upon in the study of the development of criminal behavior.”
The National Institute of Justice has spent more than $18 million on the study, a higher total than any other project. The MacArthur Foundation has spent another $23.6 million on it. Funds from other government agencies has brought the total over $51 million.
The Chicago project challenges the “broken windows” theory that if one broken window is allowed to remain in a neighborhood, more disorderly behavior will occur. “Broken windows” is endorsed by police chiefs across the nation, but the theory’s author, James Q. Wilson, says he does “not know if improving order will or will not reduce crime. People have not understood that this was a speculation.”
The Chicago project aims “to unravel the social, familial, educational and personal threads that weave together into lives of crime and violence,” the Times says. In a 1997 paper, Earls reported that most major crimes were linked not to “broken windows” but to other neighborhood variables: concentrated poverty and what he calls “collective efficacy.” He explains: “If you got a crew to clean up the mess, it would last for two weeks and go back to where it was. The point of intervention is not to clean up the neighborhood, but to work on its collective efficacy. If you organized a community meeting in a local church or school, it’s a chance for people to meet and solve problems.”
Robert J. Sampson of Harvard, Steven Raudenbush of the University of Michigan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia and Earls are working on papers they expect to publish this year. “If we are to show that where you grow up is more important than your temperament or your I.Q. or your family, or even equally important, that is a major contribution to science,” Earls said. “We’re saying that community is important at a moment in science when many of the most dramatic findings are in genetics. If genetics plays a role, it’s got to be a minor role, because the community effects are very robust.”