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How Can We Stop the Violence? This Program Works, Even in Juvenile Detention

Teaching kids to think slowly can stop crime before it starts.

Bruce Moore, 18, a senior at Clemente High School and graduate of B.A.M, sits by the school lobby with instructor Tony Di Vittorio, Tuesday Nov. 17, 2009.   Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

A couple years ago I interviewed Sara Heller, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who’d just published research in Science finding that a Chicago-based summer jobs program had successfully reduced violent-crime arrests among teens at a high risk of being involved in violence. Like the well-regarded Becoming a Man program, from the Youth Guidance agency that works with CPS, it focused on self-control and social-emotional learning, with the hope that learning to defuse or step away from conflicts—skills that are part of working a job—would do the same in their day-to-day lives.

Or, more simply: if a lot of kids end up as criminals because of a rash decision, can you teach them to stop before making a rash decision? “The bulk of that violent-crime category is assault,” Heller told me. “Assault happens, often, just because an argument over something stupid blows up.” If you could address those stupid things blowing up, could you reduce crime? The answer was yes.

During the interview, Heller mentioned that she was studying the effects of a similar cognitive-behavioral approach on an even harder audience, children in Cook County’s juvenile detention treatment center. They’re even more at risk; they’re generally detained for short stretches of time, and the BAM idea had to be adapted to a place with more stringent rules. (BAM is an interactive, “show, don’t tell” program; in the JDTC, it became more of a “tell, don’t show” approach.)

The results are in. It worked there, too.

“It’s kind of incredible because the BAM program itself has a lot of components to it, and that program is working with young men who are still attending school,” says Anuj K. Shah, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago and one of the paper’s authors. “And then you take something that’s related to it at a theoretical level, and you apply it in the JTDC with a population that might only be there for three weeks at a time And it’s certainly a more at-risk population. To see that still be effective there, reducing recidivism rates by as much as 21 percent 18 months out, it was kind of amazing to see.”

Those results are comparable to what BAM produced: total arrests fell 28-35 percent and violent crime arrests by 45-50 percent while kids were in the program, and high-school graduation rates increased 12-19 percent. But beyond the positive results, using a related but different approach by necessity helped Shah and his colleagues narrow down what might be the most effective component.

“When you look at how effective BAM is, the question is, why is it so effective? They have these rites of passage, very broad and general lessons about what it means to grow up as a young man. A lot of that program is also loosely based on principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which are ultimately about getting people to pause, and reflect, and think before they act,” Shah says. “So there’s lots of things going on in BAM. What’s interesting is that last component, that [cognitive-behavioral] component, that’s the thing that’s most echoed in the juvenile-detention center program as well.”

Getting kids to pause and reflect recognizes the reality that Ta-Nehisi Coates described in his 2013 column, “Beyond the Code of the Streets”: that self-protective aggression is also self-defensive, “a reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield.” A lack of respect—or fear—portends victimization. But it brings problems in other contexts.

“That response, to fight back or retaliate, that makes sense in certain situations. But there are other situations where it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense in the classroom, when the teacher tells you to sit down and be quiet, because the teacher isn’t trying to disrespect you. If you automatically apply that response of fight back, or retaliate, and you don’t think about the kind of situation you’re in, sometimes you’re going to apply it in the wrong situation; you fight back against the teacher,” Shah says. “That sense, in which you can think for a moment about whether the thing that you usually do really applies in any given situation, then you might have a better shot at picking the right response.”

That might seem illogical—confusing a mugger with a teacher—but we make these judgments rapidly, all the time, faster than we think. Or faster than we can think, so to speak. Just to take one of the many, many examples, the Princeton psychologist Alex Todorov found a correlation between how competent a politician looked to test subjects and his or her margin of victory, and that such judgments are made within milliseconds, “with insufficient time for rational thought.” Jean Decety, a University of Chicago neuroscientist, recently found that moral evaluations of harm, whether it is intentional or unintentional, occur within milliseconds. The BAM/JDTC studies don’t touch on timeframes of brain processes, but there are plenty of examples of how quickly all of us evaluate whether people or occurrences are good or bad, trustworthy or a threat.

“People act automatically all the time. It’s not just kids who are growing up in tough neighborhoods. Any time people are acting automatically and without deliberation, there’s some benefit to getting people to pause and reflect. This approach of trying to get people to think more deliberately or carefully has been brought to lots of domains, but what’s interesting is that behavioral science has not been applied as much to crime policy, or thinking about ways to reduce crime and violence,” Shah says. “That’s one reason we think there might be a lot of gains to be had by bringing this approach.”

And it’s reasonable to speculate (again, this is outside the boundaries of Shah and Heller’s work) that, if you are constantly exposed to threats, as one would be in a dangerous neighborhood, that your instincts would tend toward perceiving threat and fear. Aggression isn’t the only symptom of childhood PTSD, but it’s one of them. Nor are random acts of over-reaction the whole of crime. But it’s some of it. Maybe a lot of it. “Twenty percent of our residents are criminals; they will harm other people if they are not locked up,” a JTDC staffer was quoted in the study. “But the other 80 percent, I always tell them—if I could give you back 10 minutes of your lives, you wouldn’t be here.”

So the principle of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which underpins both BAM and the JDTC curriculum, is that you can first slow down those automatic reactions with effort, and then those reactions become automatically slower. Like any skill, it requires practice, repetition, and feedback on failure and success. The latest BAM/JDTC results bolster the approach and highlight why it works, but there’s still a lot to be learned. How much practice do kids need? When is a good time in their development to practice, and how long is that timeframe?

“It’s the sort of thing you get better at doing over time—to suspend your judgment for just a moment longer, before immediately acting. Early on you have to catch yourself, but as you do it more and more, you find yourself in the habit of waiting to really gather evidence before you decide to act,” Shah says.

Studies have shown that BAM has strong effects during the program, which fade out after people leave. But during a two-year program, the effects get stronger in the second year.

Shah says, “There’s some sense that increasing the dosage, if you will, or the amount of time spent in these programs, has some added benefit.”

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