In Chicago, Proof Positive That Mentoring Decreases Youth Violence

University of Chicago Crime Lab youth study offers proof positive.

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Violence kills more young people in Chicago than in any other city in America. Hope, though, may be on the horizon, thanks to an unusual violent crime study published recently.

A large social science research study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, in partnership with Chicago Public Schools and local nonprofits, found that counseling and mentoring actually work. It's the first scientific evidence that a violence reduction program could actually lead to a significant decline in violent crime arrests among youths who participated in such a counseling and mentoring initiative.

"We have data from the most rigorous possible scientific study suggesting that it is not only possible to prevent youth violence involvement through pro-social programming, but that the returns on investment are extremely high," said Jens Ludwig, who directs the Chicago Crime Lab. The study found that benefits to society compared to program costs--essentially comparing the costs of violent crime to actual counseling and mentoring program costs--measured as high as 31 to 1.

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More than 500 youths have been killed in Chicago since 2008, with 80 percent of the homicides occurring in 22 predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhoods. The vast majority of these are the result of gang violence. Chicago's overall homicide rate rose 25 percent in the first six months of 2012--with 308 homicides through the end of July, compared to 243 for the same period in 2011, according to a report by CBS Chicago.

"We have to bring attention to the violence in Chicago," Tio Hardiman, the director of Cure Violence Illinois, told NewsOne for Black America recently. Hardiman's Cure Violence program is one of the few programs to make a significant dent in the incidences of gang violence in recent years.

"When the Colorado massacre took place, it rocked the nation for one day, but homicides in Chicago rock families every day," Hardiman told NewsOne. "There seems to be no end to the madness. We can't just sit back and hope that it gets better. We have to act until it gets better."

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It is statistics and statements like these that make violent crime studies like the one conducted by the University of Chicago's Crime Lab so important--and so incredibly urgent. As Hardiman said, you can't just sit back and hope that it gets better.

The Chicago Crime Lab study was by far the largest of its kind ever conducted. It was structured like a randomized clinical trial, common in medicine and public health, but rare in crime prevention and "pro-social" studies.

The program was called Becoming a Man--Sports Edition. More than 2,700 male seventh- to tenth-graders were assigned via lottery to either the program that provided counseling and sports activities, or to a control group that received no extra services. The Becoming a Man program ultimately included 800 boys in Chicago public schools during the 2009-2010 school year, with the remainder in the control group.

The youths in the study were at an elevated risk for violence or school dropout based on criteria such as grade point average, attendance, or arrest records. The average participant in the program had a D-plus average, and had missed more than six weeks of school in the year before the study.

The Crime Lab program used counseling and non-traditional sports activities to improve "pro-social" cognitive skills--like self-regulation, impulse control, social information processing, personal responsibility, and conflict resolution.

These sorts of "pro-social" skills among at-risk youths are critical. Police data show that, by far, the most common homicide motive in Chicago is an altercation that quickly escalates into a tragedy, usually involving guns. Providing youths the means to handle impulsive behavior, even in difficult situations, is what seemed to work in the Chicago Crime Lab study.

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The results, published late this summer, are startling. Violent crime arrests among the youths who took part in the program fell by 44 percent. Violent crime arrests fell, on average, by eight arrests per 100 among youths in the program compared to those who were in the control group that did not include any additional counseling or mentoring.

What's more, the program youths became more engaged with school both during that school year and the following year as well. Their attendance, grades, and school persistence improved.

The program also had an impact on other areas beyond violent crime arrests. The number of arrests among study participants for "other" crimes such as vandalism, trespassing, and weapons possession fell by 36 percent. In addition, it substantially reduced the likelihood that a participant would spend time in a juvenile justice setting the following year.

"This study proves that even with so much stacked against them, when given access to an innovative program that really provides the support and guidance they need, these young men can and will succeed," said Michelle Adler Morrison, the CEO of Youth Guidance, one of the nonprofits that took part in the program.

While some $500 billion is spent in public schools in the United States each year, very little is geared toward improving students' long-term life chances through programs that address non-academic social skills. That is, again, why a scientific research study as large and rigorous as the Chicago Crime Lab's is so important.

The study has since been extended to more than 2,000 public school students, along with an additional academic tutoring component. And while it's still too early to test, there are clear indications that the program is likely to have a significant impact on the high school graduation rate among those who took part in the study--perhaps increasing their graduation rate by as much as 23 percent.

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