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Causes of and Solutions to Crime: What New Orleanians can Learn for the Upcoming Election
by Stephen Ostertag Friday, Jan. 08, 2010 at 4:55 PM

Given the upcoming city-wide election, coupled with recent reports on crime in New Orleans, concerned New Orleanians might benefit from some of the latest research on causes of crime and possible solutions. The following text draws on the past 30 years of empirical criminological research to provide ideas on what citizens might want to seek in hopes for safer neighborhoods and a better quality of life.

New Orleans currently lays claim to having the highest murder rate in the U.S. While New Orleans frequently runs among the most violent cities in the U.S., murder and other forms of physical violence are found in urban centers across the country. With local elections on the near horizon we are beginning to hear talk about crime and violence in New Orleans. Yet, one thing that is frequently absent is what the research on crime has to offer. Focused on trying to understand a variety of social issues, including crime, criminologists and sociologists, can provide a holistic picture of what are often very complicated social problems that span a number of areas. While understanding the collective causes and consequences of human behavior is tricky, over the past several decades, criminologists have compiled a sizable amount of data on the causes of and solutions to crime. Their suggestions may not be politically popular, however, they do pose the most promising suggestions for those who are serious about crime. Given the upcoming elections, and the heightened awareness of crime and violence in the city, citizens of New Orleans may benefit from learning about this research. Let me highlight some of the generally agreed upon points gleamed from the past 30-40 years of research from across the country.

Before anything though, we must recognize some important factors that have grown to be largely accepted as truisms among criminologists. First, and most importantly, urban violent crime in most cities across the country is mostly concentrated in a small number of particularly impoverished and isolated communities. Second, most residents of these communities are similar to residents in communities anywhere. They are law abiding, hard working people who want nothing other than to be able to make a living, provide for their families, and live in peace. Third, a growing body of research has shown that the traditional approach to handing crime over the past 40 years (that of deterrence and incapacitation) has been largely ineffective, though very expensive. In fact, this belief is now almost unanimously accepted among criminologists. Finally, any serious effort to reduce crime and violence must approach the issue by focusing most heavily on the communities over individuals.

Cause of Crime:
Predicting crime, like predicting trends in any human behavior is difficult, but years of research have lead to some general conclusions about fundamental community needs. These are important because they provide and foster a number of benefits of which many of us unknowingly take advantage, but that are largely absent or diminished among the impoverished and isolated communities in which must violent crime occurs. Any serious discussion of crime must tackle these head on if we truly want to reduce crime.

First, many community residents suffer from a lack of personal resources, such as education, job skills, and general know-how, that people bring with them to the social, political, and economic marketplace. Those who are endowed with these are more capable of using them to further their personal interests, such as finding and keeping a job upon which to raise a family, or moving to neighborhoods low in crime. When these folks move out (presuming they had to live there in the first place) they take with them the skills and education that could have been taught to others. The result is even greater marginalization and isolation in the community they left, and greater organization and inclusion in the community the now reside.

Related to this are our social networks, or the numerous social relationships, both intimate (e.g., family and close friends), but also less intimate (acquaintances, co-workers, friends of friends, etc.) that we draw on for different reasons in our everyday lives. Our social networks matter because they serve as important resources upon which we call to learn about different opportunities and further our interests and needs (family, food, child care, health care, money, transportation, etc.). Residents in marginalized and detached neighborhoods have weak social networks. Many are left fending for themselves in a constant struggle to get by. After experiencing years of this we should not be surprised that some grow apathetic, resentful, and disenchanted.

Third involves collective efficacy, or the community members’ ability to come together to solve problems or take actions that affect their neighborhoods. Collective efficacy refers to both the knowledge of how to organize, and the awareness that community organizing is a viable and realistic option to solve problems. For this to happen, residents have to communicate with each other on a frequent basis. In neighborhoods that are socially isolated, neighbor interaction is minimal, and few have the personal resources to organize their communities, let alone the recognition that organizing will do anything to help. The few networks that may develop go unrealized, as do the changes that might emerge from within the communities (i.e. from the community members themselves).

Fourth, and perhaps the most important factor, involves informal social controls. Informal social controls speak to the power of families, friends, and community level social groups (e.g., churches, schools, employers, voluntary organizations, etc.) that provide the context for learning and internalizing social norms and attitudes. They are particularly important for adolescents since they are at the age in which may begin to separate from the tightness of immediate family. It is vital that other social groups that share similar norms are available and active in offering continued social supports. Informal social controls are very different from formal social controls, such as lawmakers and law enforcers. Formal social controls seldom enjoy the same level of trust and respect as do these other groups, and therefore are less effective at motivating desired behavior and preventing unwanted behavior.

Together, resources, networks, efficacy and informal controls are common characteristics of any community. The extent to which a community is socially isolated and disconnected from other communities and larger social spheres will speak rather directly to the strength of these fundamental characteristics, and therefore, also to crime. Communities that enjoy low levels of violent crime are much more tightly organized, integrated and involved in the larger society. Communities that suffer from high rates of crime and violence are almost universally marginalized and isolated. Any serious effort to reduce crime and violence, and the fear, pain and suffering that accompanies it will need to address these issues head-on, in a community level approach. Based on years of research among cities all across the U.S., we should expect little from common (and often politically popular and safe) solutions to hold people (e.g., police chiefs) “accountable” or to increase the number of police patrolling the streets. In fact, the latest research on these widespread ‘tough on crime’ solutions is beginning to show that they actually lead to greater crime and violence, namely because they result in the further eroding of personal resources, social networks, collective efficacy, and informal social controls that are so necessary for a community to run smoothly. That’s right, we’re finding that “tough on crime” actually breeds more of it!

The research on solutions to crime is less developed than that on the causes mainly because it’s more difficult to fund. Yet, there are indeed some common sense solutions, though implementing them requires serious and sustained effort, constant monitoring (so that changes can be made as needed), and most importantly, the political courage to sponsor and support such programs, without which we’d be setting ourselves up to fail. If done properly, however, we could not only expect a reduction in crime, fear, pain and suffering, but also to save money since these programs tends to be much less costly than jail or prison.

There are three primary areas to focus our efforts at prevention. They are: child abuse and neglect, cognitive development, and adolescents and youth already engaged in delinquency.

Child Abuse and Neglect:
It is certainly true that many who were physically, sexually and mentally abused when they were children do not grow up to be violent criminals. But, those who tend to be the most violent also tend to have been severely abused as children. The most promising programs that are designed to reduce child abuse and neglect are home visiting programs. With these programs, a skilled nurse or similar person visits the homes of at-risk infants and toddlers once or twice a week, not with the goal of removing the child (though this may be necessary at times), but of providing parenting skills and linking families with community resources that they may need. This is important because stressors that arise due to peripheral issues (such as health care, income, transportation, child care, and other violent relationships) all increase the chances of child abuse and neglect. The programs that are the most successful are holistic, they seek to treat the entire family and help solve a variety of problems as they arise. Children are nurtured in a caring and warm family environment that is absent the caustic effects of heightened stress. As children grow so do their ties to family and the pro-social attitudes that strengthen the informal social controls that play such a huge role in reducing unwanted behavior. These programs also have a likely side-benefit in that they help strengthen the family’s resources and social networks that are also key to reducing crime.

Cognitive Development:
While focusing on early childhood is the most promising, studies show programs geared toward pre-school and kindergarten-age children are also promising. At this age we begin to see the early signs of behavioral problems, and many are comfortable with concluding that these children are destined for crime and to leave it at that. However, this is far from true. One successful example is the Perry Preschool Program. This program enrolled 3 and 4 year old children of single mothers into a short, daily preschool program with a low five to one pupil/teacher ratio. Children were not only taught by their teacher, but were also encouraged to plan and explore with their teachers. Teachers also visited children and their mothers at home once a week. While most children stayed in the program for only two years, follow-up interviews years later showed that they were less likely to be living on welfare, and more likely to be literate, working and earning a living wage than their comparison group. Much as with the home-visiting programs to address child abuse and neglect, the programs that treat the entire family and its array of needs (e.g., transportation, food, child care, employment, and housing issues), tend to be the most promising and still less expensive than jail or prison. There are many other such programs, but since they are usually experiments rather than policy, they are often short lived, and as would be expected, their successes diminish as time goes on.

Adolescents and Youth Already Engaged in Delinquency:
It is easy to claim that as kids reach middle-school and high-school age that whatever path they are on is set for life. While early prevention programs would reduce the need for later programs, there remains evidence that adolescents do indeed change their ways. Again, the programs that work treat the whole child and try to address the larger problems. These programs may be of particular interest because it is at this age that problem behavior turns violent. Successful approaches such as “multisystemic therapy” (MST) are ecological and understand that individuals are nested within interconnected systems of family, peers, school, and community, and treating them successfully requires dealing with issues that arise across these systems. If our social system is not functioning properly (such as an abusive family, of negative school environment) then it will manifest itself in the individual’s behavior (often repeating itself in the next generation). Isolating the individual will do nothing to address the system. Instead what is required is engaging the individual, finding out what problems exist, how to address them and finding other sources that may serve as an outlet to vent frustrations. Consider how many adults in New Orleans would attribute their learning an instrument, playing a sport, chess, or some other activity to keeping them off the streets.

Preventing crime and criminal development with these approaches can be very challenging because they require us to recognize the power of external forces on our psychological and social development, attitudes, and behavior. Yet, it is nonetheless true that we must make a serious effort to keep this in mind as we engage with those who display problem behavior.

While these areas highlight the most promising focal points of effective crime reduction efforts, we must remember that addressing them still leave us swimming against a constant tide. What ultimately matters, however, and thus dissolves personal resources, social networks, collective efficacy, and informal social control is the marginalization and social isolation of these communities and their residents. While, if properly done, these solutions will reduce crime and save money, without addressing these larger issues with similarly courageous policies addressing housing, employment, health care, and schooling we can only expect so much.

If New Orleans is serious about reducing the amount of violent crime in the city, we’d be wise to learn from what the sociological and criminological research offers, and to invest our monies in policies and programs that will yield real, long-term effects and improve the quality of life for all of us.

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