Crime Fighters: The University of Chicago Crime Lab evaluates solutions to youth gun violence

Image by Sam Bowman

Image by Sam Bowman

“I guess we’ll find out,” responds Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, when asked if the Obama administration would be likely to implement one of the Crime Lab’s ideas to reduce youth gun violence on a national scale. His answer contains a touch of humor and unconcern; that question is not yet important. Does the Crime Lab intend to merely sit back and wait to see if their ideas could ever be politically viable? Probably not, but at present, the Lab’s members do not seem to be worried about the politics of public policy. Rather, they mean to find out–not by sitting and waiting, but by rigorous evaluation–what policies are effective at reducing crime, and why and how they work.

The Crime Lab hopes to make Chicago a pioneer in studying ways to reduce youth crime by taking a clinical approach to the problem of youth gun violence. They have launched a design competition for the Chicago Youth Gun Violence Initiative, inviting comprehensive proposals for pilot programs to reduce youth gun violence.
Violent crime turns many neighborhoods into war zones, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time is often deadly. Gunfire killed 510 people in Chicago in 2008, and almost half of them were between the ages of 10 and 25. The Crime Lab recently released a report on youth gun violence in Chicago that showed that possibly as many as one out of every five youths killed by gunfire in Chicago in recent years was an innocent bystander.

Those not hurt or killed by crime still pay for it. The Crime Lab’s report asserts that the highest costs of crime are its indirect costs–all the ways in which people change their lives because of their fear of crime. Take a woman who works in Hyde Park but chooses to live elsewhere because of its crime rates. She is paying for crime with the money and time she spends commuting to work every day. Fear of crime “narrows our range of choices,” says Pollack. The Crime Lab estimates that including both direct and indirect costs, crime costs the city of Chicago roughly $2.5 billion per year. While death rates from infant mortality and disease are far lower than they were in the 1950s, the U.S. crime rate today is about 20 percent higher.

Research on effective policies to reduce crime exists, but “given the amount of time, of money spent, there has been a lot less done than should’ve been. There remain many basic unresolved questions,” according to Pollack. The problem is that few crime prevention policies are rigorously evaluated. Recognizing the true effects of policy in a dynamic environment is difficult, and policymakers do not always ask for evaluation. Many, recognizing the problem and seeing its political importance, have implemented policies and have claimed great success, but often without a thorough evaluation of the policy’s effects. Often policy ideas to reduce violent crime are logically sound, but taking a strong idea and implementing it effectively in the local environment is extremely difficult. Without rigorous evaluation to learn not only if a policy was effective, but also why, how, and for whom, many of the efforts to reduce violent crime are futile.

Through the Design Competition, the Crime Lab has collected policy proposals from Chicago government agencies, nonprofits, and private sector firms for ways to reduce youth violent crime. On March 28, the most promising ideas were selected and the contributors were notified; the chosen agencies must submit full proposals, with greater detail on the design of the program and how its effectiveness could be assessed, by April 15. The Crime Lab does not promise to implement the selected programs, but intends to work with the creators of a promising idea to raise funding. According to Pollack, there are many smart, creative people doing anti-violence work “on the ground…people who actually know how to do the interventions that are most promising” and who understand the difficulties of actually carrying out an idea. The Design Competition will tap this resource. The Crime Lab hopes to ascertain the attributes of a good program that could be imitable in other areas, and to eventually take pilot programs to other cities in the United States.

The Crime Lab is led by director Jens Ludwig, one of the nation’s leading gun policy researchers. Harold Pollack, the co-director, is a scholar on poverty policy and public health as well as a professor in the School of Social Service Administration. Roseanna Ander, Program Officer for the Gun Violence program at the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, joins them as executive director. The lab’s affiliates span the nation, including researchers and professors from the University of Chicago, Harvard, the University of Michigan, Duke, Yale, and New York University. The Crime Lab received an initial grant from the Joyce Foundation, which funds environmental and social policy work in the Great Lakes region, and is supported by the School of Social Service Administration and the University of Chicago’s Provost.

The Crime Lab will not eradicate crime; its members do not imagine this to be possible. Their Design Competition calls for very focused preventative policies and does not aim to end poverty or radically change community structures. Although poverty and community instability have always been associated with crime, it does not necessarily follow that improving these situations will end crime, or even that policies to reduce crime must focus on these areas. Many people who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances do not become criminals, suggesting that many other risk factors could be focal points for policy intervention. The Lab’s research reveals that crime is highly concentrated among a small segment of the population, so small changes affecting this group could have a large impact on crime rates.

The Lab has found that, in addition to other factors, alcohol use, mental health problems, and especially school failure appear to be highly correlated to youth crime. While the benefits of school are not immediately tangible, its costs certainly are. Research suggests that society could improve school dropout rates by making school immediately worth a young person’s time. In addition, behavioral economic research suggests that people respond better to swift and certain minor punishment rather than more harsh, uncertain, and distant consequences. A minor but immediate punishment for carrying a gun could have a deterrent effect and help to prevent more severe violence. The Design Competition required applicant programs to demonstrate a focus on improving youth engagement in school and limiting youth involvement with guns.

Research reveals that the development from ages 0 to 5 is critical in determining later criminal activity, but “if you’ve missed the boat from 0 to 5, there is still a lot you can do,” says Pollack. The Crime Lab’s data suggest that the years during middle school and early high school are a critical point when youth are especially susceptible to turning to crime. Moreover, the Crime Lab’s research suggests that most “criminal careers” are relatively short-lived, so youth who do become criminals are not lost causes. There is an exit rate from criminal activity, and there are potentially policies that could increase those rates. In accordance with this data, the Design Competition demanded that programs focus on interventions for youth between the critical ages of 10 and 21.

The Lab does not operate in order to find purely theoretical results: its members want to make an impact. To do so, however, the Crime Lab must find policies that have the potential to be politically popular and funded by a range of state and city governments. If the lab can discover an effective policy through this competition, its members will have to go further and ensure that it is politically viable. Many politicians already have political agendas and wish to implement policies that go along with these agendas, regardless of their effectiveness. The lab’s project, while so focused on implementation, is essentially theoretical for the moment; the lab has no guarantee of receiving funding or even of finding a project that political leaders will wish to back. The Design Competition is an important first step, but as the lab members know, their idealism and theory will eventually have to meet with tough Chicago politics in order to make their desired change a reality.