850 words; 4 minutes to read
One of the biggest obstacles to decreasing crime and improving public safety is the human propensity to want to punish people for bad behaviour instead of providing incentives for good behaviour. Our ingrained sense of what is ‘fair’ is often wildly inconsistent, as explored here and here). Still, this means that many people resent helping those in need, especially when we feel they have caused their own misfortune. We see this preference in many areas of social policy. For example assistance rates to those who don’t work are as stingy as possible, or that those who are homeless or unemployed get a very low level of assistance that will rarely help them fix their situations.
Nowhere is this tendency more evident than in the field of criminal justice. It seems that most societies would prefer to spend huge amounts of money on policing and jailing people rather than using smaller amounts of money to help people so that they would not need either the policing or the imprisonment. Canada spends billions of dollars each year locking people up even though there is strong research evidence that more incarceration actually creates more crime, not less.
Experiment in Liberia
A recent experiment in Africa, called Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia, provides yet more evidence that we could spend less money and get better results. A magazine article about the study can be found here https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23141405/violence-crime-cbt-therapy-cash-shootings. The research paper is here https://www.nber.org/papers/w30049.
This study followed about 1000 young men in Libera who were heavily involved in criminal behaviour ranging from street fighting to drug dealing, petty theft, and armed robbery. In 2009 and 2010 these men were divided into four groups. One group received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for 8 weeks. A second group received a $200 cash grant with no restrictions on its use. A third group received both interventions and the fourth, control group had neither.
In the original study, the group that received CBT showed a 50% reduction in criminal activity in the first year, but this effect faded rapidly as time went on. And the same was true for the cash grant. It had short-term effects that had largely disappeared after a year or so. But even the control group, which received neither therapy nor cash, showed a marked decrease in criminality in the first year.
Ten Years Later
More than 90% of these young men were found ten years later and their outcomes assessed using an index of anti-social behaviour.
In an interesting wrinkle, as they did the 10 year follow-up the researchers asked more than 80 experts to predict what they might find. The vast majority of the experts expected that after 10 years these short and small interventions would have little or no effect.
After ten years the researchers found that the CBT all those years ago had a noticeable effect on criminal activity ten years later. And to their surprise, they found that the group that received the $200 plus CBT showed even larger reductions in criminality. Moreover, the decreases were largest among the men who reported the highest antisocial behaviors at the beginning of the research.
Not perfect but promising
These approaches certainly did not eliminate all crime or the issues that led to it. ‘…men in the Therapy + Cash arm are less poor, more patient in game play, report improved mental health, and have less risky social networks. We do not see any evidence, however, that they are less impulsive, abuse fewer substances, or have acquired more anticriminal norms and values’.
The research does not show why these effects happened. The researchers suggest that ‘cash enabled the men to start legitimate enterprises for a few months and avoid an immediate return to crime, before those businesses ultimately failed. CBT is fundamentally about practice, learning-by-doing, and habit formation. A plausible hypothesis is that cash enabled a few months of legitimate activity after the CBT ended, helping to cement men’s new non-criminal identity and behavior change.’
‘The findings from STYL suggest that adults engaged in the most socially harmful behavior may be quite responsive to remedial investments, and that these interventions could have huge social returns.’ This could be so especially when therapy is ‘combined with even temporary economic assistance. The results also suggest that there are high returns to targeting the most violent and antisocial young men, at least among those who are willing to consider participating in any such program in the first place.’
Big cost benefits
Finally, a word on costs. Costs in Liberia are very different than in Canada, but in Canada arrest, trial and incarceration are so expensive that they dwarf the costs of providing CBT and a much more substantial cash grant than $200. Just a month in a provincial jail costs more than $5000. At the least Canada should be experimenting with similar approaches and seeing if they are one way to reduce crime and save public money while improving the lives of many vulnerable people, including potential victims of crime. Can we overcome our desire to punish enough to adopt a more sensible approach?