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Crime Prevention in Community and Cultural Context

San Juan, Puerto Rico

I wish to thank you for your very kind invitation to attend your conference and to offer some of my thoughts on the topic of your conference. When Dr. Linares first met with me in Washington to talk about the work you are doing in Puerto Rico -- and the special challenges that you are facing -- at the end of our meeting, he asked me whether I would consider joining you today. I accepted his invitation, for three reasons.

First, I genuinely applaud you for your efforts to create REALAN -- the Research and Evaluation Alliance on Latine, African American, and Native American Rehabilitation, a consortium between the University of Puerto Rico, Northeastern University, Nova Southeastern University, and Morehouse College of Medicine. You are to be commended for bringing together under one roof all of the disciplines and institutional interests that are involved in the issues of rehabilitation and, as important, to challenge those disciplines and institutions of government to view the issues of rehabilitation in specific cultural context of Latino, African American and Native American cultures. By embracing these challenges, you and your colleagues will provide a very important national leadership role by addressing issues that are just now being fully recognized throughout other parts of the United States. So, first, I wanted to come and learn from you because your work is important to the work of that I and my colleagues at NIJ are currently undertaking.

Second, I was very impressed by the unique opportunities that are presented here in Puerto Rico. As I understand the current situation, the academic community has been asked by the courts to form a partnership with the criminal justice system to provide more effective services -- particularly more effective rehabilitation services -- to the sentenced population. In my view, these types of partnerships between universities and criminal justice agencies is at the cutting edge of developing a more effective response to crime. We are on the verge of defining new roles for our academic colleagues in bringing their unique skills -- analytical skills, theoretical skills, quantitative skills -- to be part of a robust new discussion about how to respond to crime. At the National Institute of Justice, we are watching these developments in researcher-practitioner partnerships with interest, and are funding a number of them, so I was intrigued to learn that in Puerto Rico you are developing your own version of such a partnership. I hope we can learn from your experience, and perhaps find ways to support your efforts.

But I must admit in all candor that a significant reason for accepting Dr. Linares invitation was the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico. This is my first visit -- but, for me, it is a visit that I have long imagined and is long overdue. This visit has personal importance to me. Both of my father's parents died when he was very young. He was raised by an uncle in New Jersey. But in many ways, his real father when he was growing up was the man he called Grandpa deMena, his mother's father, who lived in Brooklyn. It was Grandpa deMena to whom he first brought the young woman who became my mother to seek his approval. He knew that Grandpa deMena was of Spanish descent, and knew vaguely that he had been born in Puerto Rico. But he didn't know much more. When the New Jersey uncle died, I was in college and my father and I cleaned out his household and found, in the garage, the official document discharging Federico deMena from the Confederate Army. He has signed up as a drummer boy, but they had discovered he was underage and kicked him out. That document listed his place of birth as Ponce, Puerto Rico. So, I hope you understand that, for me, an important part of this visit to Puerto Rico will not be your conference but will be the trip I will take on Saturday, with Dr. Linares and Professor Resumil, to see Ponce for the first time. It has been nearly 150 years since a member of my family was there and my visit is overdue.

I would like to talk with you this afternoon about crime prevention -- about ways to conceptualize the prevention of crime, about ways to think about research on the prevention of crime, and about different ways to think about those issues in the context of culture and community.

You will note that I did not start by talking about rehabilitation. So -- we need to make some linguistic and conceptual distinctions at the outset. I have adopted a very broad definition of crime prevention -- that is, any activity, public or private, that has the result of reducing the incidence of criminal behavior. Now I recognize that is a very broad definition -- indeed, there is a lively debate in Washington right now in response to a report by the General Accounting Office that looked through the federal budget and found that we spend $4 billion on crime prevention efforts[1]. Included in this astronomical number are programs that focus on developing self-sufficiency skills, crime/violence intervention, gang intervention, mentoring, tutoring, conflict resolution, counseling, substance abuse intervention, job training assistance, support services, and parental/family intervention. Now, under my definition, these initiatives may have the result of reducing crime, so they are technically speaking, crime prevention programs.

Without establishing the outer boundaries of my broad definition, allow me to describe some public and private activities that, to me, should fall squarely within our definition. Certainly, we should define crime prevention as including rehabilitation programs. On their own terms, they seek to change the behavior of criminals to reduce the likelihood that these individuals will violate our criminal laws. If successful, such efforts reduce crime. The first cousin to rehabilitation programs are those interventions that work with young people who, because of their life circumstances or their individual behavior, are considered to be on a path to delinquent or criminal behavior. Successful interventions with these young people -- even before the onset of a criminal career -- will prevent crime.

But a variety of other activities have similar results. A community's decision to increase the lighting around a public park may reduce crime. A police department's decision to close a crack house may reduce crime. A state's decision to increase incarceration of individuals in their high crime prone years may reduce crime. These examples reflect a potentially very diverse array of government and neighborhood efforts that are intended to prevent crime and, after careful evaluations, may be found to have achieved that intention.

So, my first point is that we should not think of crime prevention -- the effort to avoid the next crime - as limited to rehabilitation of offenders, nor as limited to efforts to intervene in the lives of those whom we think are at high risk of becoming offenders, nor as being juxtaposed against the efforts of police and the impact of incarceration. The choice between prevention and police and punishment -- which is the way our policy choices are often framed -- are false choices. Police and prisons can and do prevent crime. And sometimes, the most effective way to prevent crime is by reducing opportunity -- by placing lights in the park.

But we must also be careful to recognize that crime prevention is a result, not an intention. Allow me to use a simple and commonplace example to make this point. You may be familiar with home nurse visitation programs. Under these programs, an individual, sometimes a nurse, sometimes a trained child care paraprofessional, visits the homes of new parents, or parents with pre-schoolers, to help them with child rearing. They provide the family with information about health and other services; they impart skills in child rearing; they provide emotional support to new parents. The evaluation studies on these programs have shown quite impressive results. Prenatal and early childhood home visitation by nurses can reduce the number of subsequent pregnancies and the use of welfare on the part of low-income, unmarried mothers for up to 15 years after the birth of their first child. But, interestingly, these programs have also been shown to be highly effective at reducing child abuse in those families and, as importantly, reducing the later onset of delinquent and anti-social behavior by the children.[2] Now, these programs did not think of themselves as crime prevention programs, but they have had that impact. So, our definition of crime prevention must include those interventions that are designed to produce other socially desirable results -- healthier individuals, healthier families, higher educational attainment, decreased dependence on illegal drugs, more attachment to the world of work, etc. -- because these programs, if successful, are likely to also have the effect of reducing crime.

This second point was forcefully presented in a recent report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, at the request of Congress, and carried out by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.[3] In 1996, Congress required the Attorney General to provide a "comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness" of the over $3 billion spent annually by the Department of Justice in grants to state and local governments. In carrying out this assignment, the University of Maryland decided to adopt a broad definition of prevention -- looking at results, not intentions -- and to review all of the known evaluation reports examining those programs. The result was a massive, landmark report -- over 500 pages, reviewing over 500 program impact evaluations. They organized their inquiry by asking the "domains" in which prevention occurs --- and came up with seven -- communities, families, schools, labor markets, places, police and criminal justice -- and then they reviewed the entire evaluation literature in each of these domains. I recommend this report to you -- both for its rigor and for its originality. As you approach your work, you may find it useful in thinking about the array of intervention options available to Puerto Rico.

This approach -- one that examines results, not intentions, to understand prevention --also leads to another form of inquiry -- cost-benefit analysis. As you know, this is very difficult research to undertake. The research must make assumption upon assumption all the while fearing that the entire house of cards constructed in the analysis may tumble down if a major assumption is poorly grounded. For example, how should we measure the benefit of the home nurse visitation program I just mentioned? How can one quantify the healthy life? Yes, for all the inherent weaknesses, the cost-benefit approach is absolutely necessary if one is to bring research about prevention into the public policy arena.

In our field, we celebrate evaluation studies that are rigorously conducted and show positive impact. In part, our celebratory response to findings of program effectiveness must be understood against the backdrop of a history of findings of no impact -- remember, our generation was raised on the literature of "nothing works" that dominated the field in the mid-1970's. Robert Martinson's often-cited article, "What Works? -- Questions and Answers about Prison Reform," reviewed the most effective means of rehabilitating prison inmates, and found that "with few and isolated exceptions, rehabilitative efforts had no appreciable effect on recidivism," a conclusion that was widely interpreted in scholarly and policy communities as "nothing works."[4]

But in larger part, our celebratory response to findings of positive impact, particularly in the field of rehabilitation programs, must be understood against the current public mood. There are few public advocates for the notion that criminals are deserving of our attention and our efforts to improve their lives -- so every research finding of positive impact is the equivalent of lighting a candle in the public policy darkness. But we rarely ask the tough next question: what dosage of intervention was required to produce this result? What was the cost for that benefit? And, even more important, what public policy options were available for investing the marginal crime prevention dollar? If a governor, or judge, or city council, had one million dollars to spend on crime prevention, what would be the best investment in terms of the crime reduction return? Few researchers are willing to take on this challenge -- most notably, the RAND Corporation has conducted important and provocative cost benefit analyses that match one prevention policy against another in terms of yield on investment. Even fewer communities are willing to adopt this approach to budgeting scarce dollars to reduce crime. So, Puerto Rico, because of the new partnership envisioned by the court, between the University and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has an opportunity to serve as a case study for a systematic, research-based approach to this important policy challenge.

The third point I would like to raise on the issue of crime prevention requires us to step back from individual programs -- even when most broadly defined to include something like home nurse visitation programs -- and to ask a more fundamental question: "What forces create law-abiding behavior?" I think we are living in a period of history that requires us to ask this more fundamental question. We are witnessing record declines in violent crime rates in some, but not all, United States cities. The declines are greatest in the larger cities, and greatest in those that have also experienced downward trends in use of crack cocaine. Some of the declines are nothing short of breath-taking. In New York City, my home, the number of homicides has dropped from 2,245 in 1990 (when New York City started to increase its police department by nearly 20%), to 986 in 1996,[5] and early results from 1997 continue to show record declines. This is a 56 percent drop over six years. On a national level, the level of victimization reported in the crime victims survey is the lowest since 1972, when that survey was first conducted.

How are we to understand these drops in crime? Certainly, if we were "program-centric", we would have a very hard time arguing that a large number of highly successful crime prevention and rehabilitation programs combined to produce this result. Changes in crack markets and crack use would apparently explain much of the reduction, but in some cities such as Boston the decline in homicides appears to be more related to changes in juvenile behavior unrelated to crack. More likely, it seems to me, is a hypothesis that states that, once anti-social behavior reached a "tipping point" where communities, young people, criminal justice professionals, educators, police and others involved with community well-being basically said "enough", then a combination of a number of factors --ranging from problem solving, community-oriented policing to maturation of illegal drug markets -- kicked in and, in a short time, the norm structure of a community started to change. Certain behavior was no longer acceptable. And those norms were reinforced by police and community alike.

So, my point is that, ultimately, we must understand crime prevention as being an integral part of the character and personality of a community. We have long known that "strong parental attachments to consistently disciplined children, in watchful and supportive communities are the best vaccine against street crime and violence... Each person's bonds to family, community, school and work create what criminologists call `informal social control,' the pressures to conform to the law that have little to do with the threat of punishment."[6] What we do not yet understand adequately is the mix of social policies that strengthen those informal social controls.

Allow me to draw upon some work being conducted in Chicago and funded by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation. This research effort, called the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, is the most ambitious study of the relationship between community, crime, delinquency, family and individual development now underway in the United States. At the community level, the Project has surveyed more than 8,700 adult residents in 343 neighborhoods throughout Chicago, reflecting enormous cultural and economic diversity. In addition, researchers have identified 80 neighborhoods as the focus for a longitudinal cohort study to be conducted over the next eight years. As part of the first wave of this longitudinal study, researchers have conducted interviews with 7,000 children and adolescents and their primary caregivers.[7]

Over the next several years, we will be reaping the rich rewards of this ambitious research project. Last month, the research team, headed by Dr. Felton Earls of the Harvard School of Public Health, published their first findings in Science magazine.[8] They reported that the largest predictor of violent crime rates was "collective efficacy" -- a term they used to mean a sense of trust, common values, and cohesion in a neighborhood. They found that there are lower rates of violence in neighborhoods that have a strong sense of community and values, where adults are likely to intervene when children are missing from school or scrawling graffiti. According to Professor Robert Sampson, a co-author of the report, "cohesion, or efficacy, seems to be a shared vision, a fusion of shared willingness of residents to intervene and social trust, a sense of engagement and ownership of public space." According to Dr. Earls, the most important characteristic of "collective efficacy" is a "willingness by residents to intervene in the lives of children." Dr. Earls is referring to a willingness to supervise, or step in, and monitor children in a neighborhood.[9]

This finding of collective efficacy is important standing alone, but it is doubly important when placed in context. Collective efficacy, when assessing predictors of violence, has an impact OVER AND ABOVE traditional predictors such as race/ethnic composition, poverty and residential instability.

There is a history to studying communities in relation to crime. Community studies have examined the influences of poverty, social organization of neighborhoods, ethnic composition and residential stability in relation to delinquency and crime. Much of this work builds on research initiated in Chicago during 1930s and 1940s by sociologists at the University of Chicago. By comparing high and low rate delinquency areas these sociologists identified several characteristics of social organization that account for differences in the rates of delinquency of communities: socioeconomic status, segregation by race and national origin, residential mobility, and differential systems of values.

For me, the importance of the Chicago study is that it understands communities as independent forces for social well-being. In other words, communities may be our most powerful crime prevention "program" because they can magnify and sustain the impact of other interventions. At NIJ, we are thinking about the implications of this research for our own research strategy -- How would one test the notion of collective efficacy? How would one try to strengthen community infrastructure? How would one build criminal justice responses that have as one of their purposes creation of a stronger community?

It is on precisely these questions that your conference -- and your work outside of this conference -- has the most to offer. By focusing your efforts on different cultural settings -- Latino culture, African American culture, American Indian culture -- you are posing this research question: which communities, which sets of shared values and norms, and which interventions in those settings, can be most effective at producing safety? At NIJ, we have funded a number of important studies that will produce useful knowledge on this question. We have funded studies on crime prevention in Indian country; we have a number of studies of family violence in predominantly Latino or African American communities; we are looking at immigrant communities in terms of their response to crime and invocation of the criminal justice response. Yet these studies, as proud as we are of their inclusion in our work, are the tip of a large iceberg of potential research projects that could stimulate, within our professions and within our country, a healthy and necessary discussion about the relationship between cultural and community context and crime prevention.

So, your work is very important to a larger audience. I thank you again for the invitation to attend, and wish you well.