Some prevention efforts appear to deter more youth crime than stiff penalties Programs that encourage staying in school cited in RAND institute study


WASHINGTON -- It turns out that often-scorned crime prevention efforts aimed at disadvantaged children may be far more effective than tough prison terms at keeping you safe.

In a new study released yesterday, researchers with the 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-and-out laws.

And programs that teach better parental 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, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in Santa Monica, Calif. -- is the first to compare crime prevention programs to incarceration on the basis of cost and effectiveness at preventing future crimes.

"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."

The study comes at a time when congressional Republicans are proposing yet 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 funding for crime prevention.

It also comes at a time when incarceration facilities for juveniles are overcrowded, and officials in many states are planning to build more cells 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 children in their crime-prone teens rises over the next several years, experts say.

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.

But 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.

"Despite the seriousness of America's crime problem, most of the money and effort devoted to solving it are restricted to one approach -- incarcerating persons who have already committed crimes," the study says. "Much less attention has been paid to diverting youths who have not yet committed crimes from doing so.

"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."

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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