Crime and the City

This article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of SSA Magazine.

(This story is a sidebar in An End to Mass Incarceration)

For crime prevention, the City of Chicago is deepening the connections between the police, schools and social services.

Services like mental health counseling, job-placement, education and substance abuse treatment clearly can play a role in helping those enmeshed in the criminal justice system. They are also increasingly recognized as being instrumental in preventing the crimes from ever being committed.

“Community-based organizations have been saying for a long time that by committing to these kinds of programs we can lower the amount of crime and violence, and now it’s becoming widely recognized and embraced. Even the police department, which in the past has had the model of solve the crime and catch the bad guy, is adding a new perspective: to anticipate and prevent the crime,” says Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

That perspective was explored at “Reducing Urban Crime and Violence,” a symposium in February sponsored by the Crime Lab that brought together a bevy of heavy hitters in academia and policy, including United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, SSA’s McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy Jens Ludwig, Chicago Public Schools CEO J.C. Brizard, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Commissioner Evelyn Diaz, A.M. ’98, of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.

Also featured on the panels was University of California at Berkeley Professor Frank Zimring, the author of The City that Became Safe, which looks at the startling drop in crime over the last few decades in New York City. In an article in The New York Times about the symposium, Zimring pointed out that crime rates fell in New York even as the incarceration rate went down—puncturing the idea that mass incarceration, for all its problems, is central to fighting crime.

In fact, in a paper in the Winter 2011 issue of the Wilson Quarterly, Ludwig, a co-director of the Crime Lab, and Duke University Professor Philip Cook point out that from 1991 to 2000 the number of prisoners per 100,000 Americans rose by 53 percent and the robbery rate nationwide dropped by 47 percent. Then again, from 1984 to 1991, the number of prisoners rose by 66 percent—but the robbery rate climbed 33 percent.

So what does prevent crime? The symposium broke that discussion into two parts, one dedicated to law enforcement strategies and one to education and social services. “In criminal justice, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars in interventions, but often we don’t know what really works,” says Harold Pollack, SSA’s Helen Ross Professor and co-director of the Crime Lab. “There’s a new awareness of the importance of evidence-informed policy.”

The fact that so many City of Chicago policymakers were at the symposium gives an indication of increased interest in connecting to current research—and a new push by the new administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to build bridges between departments. “In the past, this department didn’t work that closely with the police and schools to reduce crime in any systemic or scalable way,” Diaz says. “But there is a role for social services to play in the continuum of law enforcement and school strategies, and we’re working more closely than ever.”

Diaz is also working with the Crime Lab on researching the impact of “One Summer Plus,” a summer jobs program for CPS students who are at the greatest risk of being a crime victim or perpetrator. The study will compare the impact on kids who have 30 hours a week of work with those who have 20 hours of work and 10 hours of a program designed to build their social and emotional skills.

“There seems to be agreement among most people that if kids are working and not just hanging around on the streets, that’s a crime prevention strategy,” Diaz says. “But we’ve never really measured the impact of our programs on crime. When we’ve completed this study, we’ll have results that not only could have national significance but will help us design higher impact programs next year.”

Ander says that kind of impact—conducting research and getting it into the hands of policymakers—is what the Crime Lab is all about. “There seems to be a real appetite for it,” she says. “The City is thinking about how to use its resources most effectively, about what strategies work to have the biggest impact.”

Bria Berger

Bria Berger, AM '14

“It’s important to have transferable skills and to have a professional mentor. Working with [Assistant Professor] Alida Bouris has helped me both personally and professionally. She has encouraged me to mold my course schedule and placement to my interest and goals, to take risks, and she has helped me shape my vision of who I am in the social work world.”