Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: What Are the Costs and Benefits?
Measuring Costs and Benefits
- 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
- 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
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 BenefitsWhen 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:
Cost-Effectiveness of Early Interventions, Compared with That of California's Three-Strikes Law
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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