Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: What Are the Costs and Benefits?

Measuring Costs and Benefits

The RAND analysts considered four different approaches to intervening early in the lives of children at some risk of eventual trouble with the law. Risk of that kind is, of course, difficult to determine, but research shows that the children of young, single, poor mothers are at greater risk of engaging in criminal activity than are others. Some interventions might be targeted to such families, while others could be based on the child's behavior. The four approaches examined were as follows:
  • Home visits by child-care professionals beginning before birth and extending through the first two years of childhood, followed by four years of day care.

  • Training for parents and therapy for families with young children who have shown aggressive behavior in school.

  • Four years of cash and other incentives to induce disadvantaged high school students to graduate.

  • Monitoring and supervising high-school-age youths who have already exhibited delinquent behavior.

  • Each of these approaches has been attempted, and the top line of the table shows the efficacies of these pilot programs in terms of reductions in arrest or rearrest rates. These reductions are not likely to be as big once these programs are scaled up. Effects are also likely to decay with the passage of time, especially with respect to any effects on behavior beyond the juvenile years. In the second and third lines, the table shows hypothesized effective prevention rates taking into account these scale-up and decay penalties. Larger penalties were taken for the two earlier interventions, as their effects have more opportunity for decay before children reach a crime-prone age.

    The table shows another factor influencing ultimate program benefit--the targeting ratio, or ratio of the expected lifetime crime rate for the group participating in the program to that for the population as a whole. Again, the later programs can be focused more narrowly on youths at greater risk of criminal activity. Finally, the table shows an estimate of the costs of each program per participant.

    Comparing Costs and Benefits

    When combined with other information, the data in the table permit estimates of how many serious crimes would be averted over the lives of all program participants. These estimates can be expressed in terms of serious crimes prevented for every million dollars spent on each program. These are presented in the figure, along with a similar estimate for one high-profile incarceration program--California's "three-strikes" law extending sentences for repeat offenders. Three of the four early-intervention approaches compare favorably in cost-effectiveness with incarceration. Caution must be exercised, however, before taking these results at face value, for two reasons:
    • The costs of the four early interventions are based solely on the program costs shown in the table. They do not take into account the savings realized by not having to eventually imprison those youths diverted from criminal careers. Greenwood and his colleagues estimated that graduation incentives, for example, would save enough money to pay most of the program's costs.

    • Because the estimates shown in the table are the results of limited demonstrations and educated guesses, actual values could vary considerably from those shown. The researchers found, however, that substantial variations in the table values do not reverse the cost-effectiveness outcomes relative to the three-strikes law.

    • Cost-Effectiveness of Early Interventions, Compared with That of California's Three-Strikes Law

      None of this suggests that incarceration is the wrong approach. If implemented at full scale, the early interventions' total impact on California's crime rate would be smaller than that of the three-strikes law. A previous analysis estimated that the three-strikes law might reduce serious crime by approximately 21 percent. Graduation incentives might bring about a reduction of 15 percent, the other interventions less.

      The crime reductions achievable through three-strikes laws like California's are indeed substantial. But, with 80 percent of serious crime remaining, Americans will want to know what else can be done. This study indicates that crime could be reduced further through parent training, graduation incentives, and supervision of delinquents. Given California's vote in favor of the three-strikes law, the public may believe that a 21 percent reduction in crime is worth the measure's cost of $5.5 billion a year. For less than another billion dollars, graduation incentives and parent training could roughly double that crime reduction, if they are as effective as suggested here. To find out if they are would require broader demonstrations costing millions of dollars. The RANDteam concluded that such demonstrations would be an investment worth the cost.

      RAND research briefs summarize research that has been more fully documented elsewhere. This research brief describes work done in the RAND Public Safety and Justice program (formerly RAND Criminal Justice) with funding from the University of California, the James Irvine Foundation, and RAND's own funds. The work is documented in Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: Measuring Costs and Benefits, by Peter W. Greenwood, Karyn E. Model, C. Peter Rydell, and James Chiesa, MR-699-UCB/RC/IF, 1996, 88 pp., ISBN: 0-8330-2383-7.

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      Published 1996 by RAND

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