We Already Know How to Prevent Violence. Why Not Do It?


How can we honor the hope expressed by Michael Brown Sr. that the death of his son Michael in Ferguson, Mo., last summer will ¨lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone?”

St. Louis has such high losses of life from homicide that, on a per capita basis, it is one of four U.S. cities in the list of the 50 most violent cities in the world. But contemporary research suggests these tragic statistics are not inevitable. They are preventable.

For example, using tax revenue to invest in smart crime control and violence prevention would cut those rates of violence, particularly affecting young black men, by as much as 50%, while reducing the need for so many police, and for the current high levels of incarceration.

Instead, our taxes have been used over the last 40 years to enable the U.S. to take its long-established punitive criminal justice system to extremes unknown anywhere else on the planet. It is no longer news that American taxpayers are responsible for incarcerating 20% of the world´s prisoners, even as U.S. citizens make up only 5% of the world´s population.

Nor is it news that the proportion of young black men behind bars on an average day is seven times that for whites. If paying more for policing and incarceration made countries safer, the U.S. would be the safest country on the planet. Taxpayers here pay more per capita for policing and incarceration than citizens of other affluent democracies like Canada, England or Germany.

It is not just that too many black Americans go to too many prisons for far too long; but the fact that way too many young black men continue to be murdered. The rate at which they lose their lives is close to ten times that of young white men. The epidemic growth in rates of incarceration in the U.S.— at least five times the rate recorded by those other democracies— has done little to reduce the tragic loss of life, particularly for men of color.

It is time to apply 21st-century solutions, backed by the weight of research, to solve problems that have been festering for more than a century.

Such solutions are easily accessible. They are covered for instance on public web sites such as that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization—both of which consider endemic violence as much of a public health challenge as a criminological one.

One of the most useful sites is produced by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), aptly named crimesolutions.gov. This was built on research results accumulated in the last 50 years in the U.S. and other countries, ranging from pre-school programs to re-entry. Many of the research studies cited involved random control trials that tested whether a particular innovative program reduced crime more than the traditional system. A program is rated ¨effective¨ only if there are enough reliable scientific studies that demonstrate it.

The DOJ site currently confirms the effectiveness in preventing crime of 78 out of 327 programs and eight of a new category of 27 practices. Most of the “effective” programs concern some type of crime prevention rather than an action of the police, the courts or a corrections system. More than half of the 78 successful programs tackle problems in families, or schools, or concern themselves with improving life skills through mentoring, substance abuse or trauma treatment programs.

In other words, they showed that preventive action which intervenes early in the life of at-risk young men has concrete results. These also show remarkable reductions in violence, often of 50% or more in the studies.

Another small group of effective solutions concern programs administered through the justice system, such as drug courts. Interestingly, less than 10% of the programs, and one of the ¨practices,¨ target policing in problem areas.

There is no doubt that the practice of ¨hot spot¨ policing reduces some specific forms of street violence and has a role in controlling open drug markets. But this often carries a human cost, such as the well-known example of the use of stop, question and frisk strategies used by police in high-crime areas, which often leaves residents of poor urban communities of color feeling they have been unfairly singled out.

U.S. researchers have also accumulated an impressive body of knowledge about the causes or risk factors that lead to crime. These risk factors come from negative life experiences that can lead to the development of persistent offending, such as inadequate parenting, school failure or lack of positive role models. Typically the “problem places” targeted in hot spots policing are characterized by a concentration of young men with the classic risk factors for becoming offenders.

The effective pre-crime prevention programs that tackle these risk factors have often achieved much larger reductions in violence than hot spots and importantly at much lower cost. Moreover, such programs represent long-term investments in human potential that help many people avoid the vicious cycle associated with incarceration. Programs such as My Brother´s Keeper, life skills training and even pre-school education are examples of how research and best practices are being applied —rightly justified on returns on investment of $7 or better for each dollar invested.

There are also large percentage cuts in violence and trauma from the application of public health analyses of the epidemiology of violence. The evaluation of Cure Violence in Chicago and in Baltimore show impressive reductions in reducing gun violence through mediation and outreach to youth at risk. Other programs cut violence by changing the situations that led to persons being victims of violence, by analyzing data on hospital emergency rooms admissions. There are some cities, such as Glasgow in Scotland, that have applied this knowledge across cities to cut violence close to 50%.

By combining the use of the effective programs and practices, the application of public health strategies and encouraging results from pioneering cities, my analysis suggests that violence can be cut by as much as 50% for a fraction of the cost of traditional law enforcement and criminal justice.

The U.S. is a world leader in research about intimate partner and sexual violence. An annual survey, produced by the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention, suggests several promising ways of preventing such violence; but with the exception of some recent initiatives to reduce sexual assault on college campuses, few proven or even promising solutions have been implemented. Yet at the same time, the U.S. has recently sponsored an historic resolution at the World Health Assembly calling for a much greater role for public health and evidence in violence prevention

One reason for the lack of implementation of 21st century knowledge is that research results have not been well articulated for legislators.

There are compelling public safety and fiscal arguments to be made for shifting from a failing and expensive punishment agenda to a proven and cost-effective prevention agenda. There is a role for policing in problem-solving, and in partnership with existing services to families and schools, as opposed to an over-reliance on reactive policing and incarceration.

Such an approach would provide huge savings to taxpayers. But it also means better futures for young men at risk, including those of color.

It's not a coincidence that the co-chair of the task force on policing recently announced by President Barack Obama is former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who played a key role in launching crimesolutions.gov. (The other chair is Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.)

But will legislators listen to the solutions they offer—and help apply them? If we truly want to provide a positive answer to the challenge posed by Michael Brown Sr, it's well past time for them to do so.

Editors Note: for a source on comparative statistics on incarceration and homicide rates, and background on other arguments made in this essay, see Waller, Irvin, Smarter Crime Control: A Guide to a Safer Future for Citizens, Communities, and Politicians,] Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014] and Woolf, Steven H., and Laudan Aron, eds. U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Irvin Waller is the author of Smarter Crime Control: A Guide to a Safer Future for Citizens, Communities, and Politicians. He welcomes comments from readers.

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