Overview

Reducing crime is not a mysterious puzzle. It is quite simple and doable, involving not supernatural appeals but sound social policy.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Back in the Middle Ages, in the villages and hamlets of Northern Europe, when a spate of violent crime would erupt, local chieftains and magistrates would call for “roaming prayer groups” to combat the societal scourge.

Nah, just kidding. That’s Republican leaders spitballing in the here and now.

Take for example former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who just a few years ago put forth his “plan” to fight an uptick in crime: have faith leaders walk corner to corner in 10-block sections of various neighborhoods and pray. Yep. Two to three times a week was determined to be the most effective frequency.

As the good governor tweeted: “Prayer WILL change things.”

Or as Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert publicly proclaimed just a few months ago, if government leaders simply prayed more, gun violence would cease—a common, widely-shared Republican trope.

“We need to go back to God,” Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller proclaimed back in June; only that will solve “what really ails our country.”

This approach to solving crime and violence is patently false. No empirical evidence supports it. What does effectively lower crime in society is sound social policy that directly addresses the underlying sources of criminality.

Decades of data

Study after study over the course of a half-century or more has demonstrated the ways in which positive, active engagement with vulnerable populations can significantly reduce crime. 

Let’s start with the 1970s. Professor of psychology David Olds identified a large sample of mostly white, poor, young, and unmarried pregnant women in the rural town of Elmira, New York. This group of disadvantaged mothers was divided into two groups: experimental and control. The mothers in the former group received regular in-home visitations by registered nurses during their pregnancies and also after their babies were born, for two years. During these visits, the nurses provided parenting tips, helped the moms access social services, answered questions about health, medicine, diet, nutrition, discipline, and so forth. The mothers in the control group did not experience any of these supportive visitations.

The result?

Compared to those in the control group, the single moms who received the nurse visits were far less likely to become pregnant again, much more likely to become employed, and much less likely to abuse or neglect their kids. Over a decade later, their kids were much less likely to be using alcohol or drugs and—most importantly—were much less likely to have ever been arrested.

Why? Because parents who are poor and unsupported are much more likely to neglect or abuse their kids, and kids who grow up under such unstable circumstances are much more likely to commit crimes when they get older. By providing a simple, relatively cheap, and quite benign intervention—giving single moms two years of support from a registered nurse—the overall well-being of these women was significantly and measurably increased, and the subsequent criminality of their children was substantially decreased. Everybody wins: moms, kids, and society.

Consider the Perry preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan. A large sample of poor African American families was divided into two groups: experimental and control. Unlike the children in the control group, the children in the experimental group were enrolled in a well-funded preschool program that had a low student-teacher ratio and drew from the child developmental approach of Jean Piaget. The preschool teachers also visited the children and their mothers once a week at their homes. The results: By their late 20s, the kids that had gone through the Perry program were more likely to be off welfare and gainfully employed than those who hadn’t. And they were much less likely to be have been arrested for violent crimes.

Yet another: in the Quantum program study, researchers identified at-risk, minority, poor teenagers in rough neighborhoods in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas. Those in the experimental cohort spent four years in a group with other teenagers, led by an adult instructor, and received help with school and job training, did community work, visited the theater, and were given a monetary stipend that they could spend or, if they chose, save for college. Two years after the program ended, the average number of criminal arrests of those teenagers who had participated in the Quantum program was 50% lower than the control group of teenagers who had not.

Need one more? You got it. In the South Carolina Family and Neighborhood Services program, a large sample of teens of various races and social classes was identified, each of whom had committed a series of violent crimes. The control group received traditional disciplinary sanctions, like curfews and threats of being sent to a youth prison. But the experimental group received visits several times a week from social workers who positively addressed various aspects of the teenagers’ lives, such as their school struggles or health issues. The social workers also helped the teenagers cope with and navigate any difficult family situations. The outcome? In the following years, those who had participated in the program were half as likely to have been arrested as those who had not.  

There are so many more such programs out there, not just within the United States, but around the world, that focus on vulnerable populations, provide them with supportive help, and thereby effectively decrease overall criminal activity. Such programs certainly cost money, but they are much cheaper and more cost-effective than not having them. Indeed, it is much more efficient, to say nothing of being more humane, to invest in preventative social welfare programs than to build and staff prisons.

The recent increase in violent crime

Although crime rates in the USA are nowhere near as bad as they were in the 1990s, we have recently seen a slight uptick. The murder rate has increased by 29% in the last couple of years. Such an uptick in violence requires responsive action—and thanks to programs like those described above, we don’t have to throw darts or flip a coin to know what to do. We have a very clear understanding of what kind of action reduces crime in society: inhibit child neglect and abuse, foster children’s social and intellectual development, offer support and guidance to vulnerable teenagers, and work closely and therapeutically with juvenile offenders.

It’s pretty easy to understand how much of this works: when people live in poverty and do not have jobs or good job prospects, when vocational training is scarce, when they can’t get a good education, when they can’t afford decent housing, when they don’t have access to health care, when they feel a deep sense of hopelessness — all of this breeds despair, humiliation, and shame. And this in turn creates unstable homes wracked with frustration, anger, and violence. Add drugs and alcohol into the mix, and things only gets worse. Such households are more likely to produce children who – experiencing insecurity, abuse, and neglect — are much more likely to become violent and criminally-involved as they grow up. It is thus no coincidence that nearly all of the states with the highest murder rates – such as Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas – also tend to have the highest poverty rates.

To reduce violent crime, reduce poverty and inequality by providing health care, quality education, job training, affordable housing, and a variety of needed social services for all. Do this, and violent crime will plummet.

No prayers needed, no gods required.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...