WASHINGTON - It turns out that crime-prevention efforts aimed at disadvantaged children might be far more effective than tough prison terms at keeping you safe.
In a new study released yesterday, researchers with the highly respected RAND institute found that, dollar for dollar, programs that encourage high-risk youth to finish school and stay out of trouble prevent five times as many crimes as stiff penalties imposed on repeat offenders with so-called "three strikes, you're out" laws.
And programs that teach better parenting skills to the families of aggressive children prevent almost three times as many serious crimes for every dollar spent.
The study - a two-year effort by researchers at RAND - is the first to compare crime prevention programs to incarceration on the basis of cost and effectiveness at preventing future crimes. RAND is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in Santa Monica, Calif.
"There has always been a disconnect between everybody's agreement that prevention is a good thing and some estimate of that benefit. That's what's new here," said Peter Greenwood, RAND's director of criminal justice programs and the study's primary author.
"In one sense, it's surprising how effective some of these things are," Greenwood said. "But on the other hand, it shouldn't be surprising at all.
What's most effective
"We all know the two institutions that socialize kids and keep them on the right track are the family and school. And our study shows that incentives for graduation and parent training are the two things that work."
The study comes at a time when congressional Republicans are proposing again to increase penalties for juvenile offenders, and to eliminate the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the U.S. Justice Department, the primary source of federal leadership and funding for crime prevention.
It also comes at a time when incarceration facilities for juveniles are dangerously overcrowded, and officials in many states are planning to build even more cells - known as punk prisons - for the most violent juvenile offenders.
The number of violent crimes committed by juveniles is skyrocketing in the United States and will continue to climb as the number of kids in their crime-prone teens rises over the next several years, experts say.
Incarceration not `wrong'
The RAND study does not suggest "that incarceration is the wrong approach" to this rising tide of juvenile crime, the authors said in a statement. Nor that the "three strikes" laws, which affect primarily adults, are not worth their high cost.
However, the current obsession with longer and tougher sentences has produced a "lopsided allocation of resources," they said, that gives short shrift to preventing crime among kids who can still be saved.
"The crime reductions achievable through three-strikes laws . . . are indeed substantial," the study says. "But, with 80 percent of serious crime" unaffected by such laws, "Americans will want to know what else can be done."
The answer, according to the study, is "plenty."
After comparing the costs of the prevention programs and the number of participants who went on to commit crimes with an earlier RAND study on California's three-strikes law, researchers found that the graduation-incentive program was by far the most cost-effective, averting about 250 serious crimes for every $1 million.
Of the prevention programs, only early childhood intervention - known in many states as Healthy Start - was less cost-effective than incarceration, preventing less than 34 crimes per $1 million, the study says. However, the program has been shown to reduce rates of child abuse by 50 percent and produce other benefits, which researchers did not try to measure.
Not a blanket endorsement
Midnight basketball programs also escaped RAND's review, as did any number of other crime-prevention programs. For that reason, researchers say, their study should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of prevention over incarceration in all cases.
But, the study's authors said, "Large-scale, multimillion-dollar demonstrations of these promising programs would be an investment worth the cost."