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Posts By Akiva Liberman
Akiva Liberman is a Senior Fellow in the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute, which he joined in 2010. His primary interests concern juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, youth violence prevention, evaluation methods, and the conditions of effective program implementation. From 1999 to 2007 he oversaw much of extramural research concerning juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice, in the Office of Research and Evaluation of the National Institute of Justice. From 2007 to 2010, he oversaw research on the effective implementation of effective drug treatment for criminal justice populations, in the Division of Epidemiology, Services, and Prevention Research of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. His edited book The Long View of Crime: A Synthesis of Longitudinal Research was published by Springer in 2008. He holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from New York University.Links:
| Posted: April 24th, 2013
After the tragic shooting in Newtown, some have proposed requiring schools to have armed police officers on site. But the best available research suggests that this idea should be resisted.
Here are seven reasons why we should not mandate armed police in all schools.
1. Schools are among the safest places for children despite these rare but deadly events.
2. Schools vary enormously in their risks and in what would be the most useful policies to address those risks. In many schools, armed officers are an expensive diversion of resources better used in other ways.
3. Schools cannot be isolated from their larger communities—and we cannot lock down entire communities, as I discussed in an earlier posting. In many cases, the costs of deploying armed officers at schools could be put to better use for preventing violence.
4. Policing in schools can lead to unnecessary arrests. Having police officers in schools—sometimes called School Resource Officers or SROs—can lead to the criminalization of minor student misbehavior, as illustrated in a recent New York Times report about SROs in Houston. When not used judiciously, police presence can generate unnecessary arrests, which clog up the courts and take students out of classes, to little benefit.
5. Growing evidence, as in some recent studies in Chicago, suggests that arresting youth disrupts their schooling, chances of graduating, and future employment options.
6. Sworn officers have complex and ill-defined role in schools. They generally report to police departments rather than to the schools. At times, their police roles put them in overt conflict with principals. Sometimes officers are able to help with student learning, but their law enforcement roles can also interfere with the school’s educational mission.
7. To date, we have no evidence that armed officers generally improve school safety. Instead, the evidence we do have demonstrates the enormous variability in how school resource officers function. This means that one-size-fits-all policies simply cannot be effective.
Does all this mean that schools should never hire armed officers? Of course not. But this decision needs to be a local one. The opportunity costs of placing armed officers in schools—that is, the resources needed to support them—are high. In many cases, school safety, community safety, and education are all better served by using those resources in other ways.
Photo by Flickr user gregorywass used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Filed under: Government Add a Comment »
| Posted: December 21st, 2012
With the public discussion about gun laws taking place in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, it’s useful to revisit a question I wrote about after the Aurora shooting in July: Are gun laws effective in reducing violence? That post explained why we don’t know—mainly, because we can’t do controlled experiments and because the crime data we have are too unreliable and incomplete.
First, one important observation. I think the policy discussion about guns and violence is the right one to have, more so than a policy debate about safety specifically in schools and how to make schools more impervious to such attacks. In Aurora, a mass shooting occurred in a movie theater; in Tucson, outside a supermarket where Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with constituents. We don’t want to treat each setting as a separate problem. The comparison to movie theaters also illuminates why a focus on locking down the schools is likely to have limited effectiveness: schools are small parts of communities that are largely open. Even if we rendered the schools impregnable, suicidal killers could reach many of the same targets outside of those locked-down schools. We cannot lock down the entire community. We should also remember that, as horrific as these events are, the vast majority of shootings of children happen outside of schools; less than 2 percent of youth homicides happen at school. The tremendous resources it would take to render all schools impregnable could be much more effectively used to reduce youth violence.
So, are gun laws effective? As explained in my previous post, we don’t know. I was part of a scientific panel that reviewed the evidence; we concluded that the needed scientific evidence we usually demand to gauge effectiveness is generally not available when it comes to gun laws. But not knowing is very different from finding that these policies are not effective.
Policy discussion cannot—and should not—await that evidence. There are other considerations, including suggestive evidence from other countries, to bring to bear. We will never find out whether a policy, such as limiting access to guns or making them less lethal, will reduce violence unless we try it.
Yet, even if we enact laws that could be effective, it would take four additional things for those effects to appear. First, passing laws is not enough; they also need to be funded and well-implemented. Even well-implemented laws restricting access and sale of some weapons would take a long time to show impact given the arsenal of weapons already easily available. Once those laws began affecting access to guns, it would take additional time to see their effects. Finally and fundamentally, it will also take a crime data infrastructure that does not yet exist.
So, we need to make policy now. Then we will certainly want to learn if the new policies are effective. But we must not be naïve in demanding quick evidence of effectiveness. Let’s couple any firearms policy changes with the funding and dedication to greatly improve our crime data, so that we can learn what works.
Filed under: Quality of Life 1 Comment »
| Posted: December 18th, 2012
In a recent report on truancy in DC, we found that for four public high schools in DC, most of the students were chronically truants in 2010-11, as defined by at least 25 unexcused absences. By definition, these students missed at least 5 weeks of school unexcused; on average, they actually had more than 40 absences. In four other high schools, more than 40 percent of students were chronically truant. At the other end of the scale, three high schools had a less than 5 percent chronic truancy rate and another three had rates below 10 percent.
Students who don’t attend school cannot learn very much and are on a path to dropping out. What should we do about this? I have three observations today.
1. Should we punish these students or expel them? Or punish their parents?
Expelling students for not attending school is an ironically ineffective way to improve attendance. Sometimes policy-makers want to use the justice system – in this case the Family Court – as a major way to respond. But when you think about the numbers, it becomes clear that the Family Court cannot practically be the major response to chronic truancy. In 2010, there were about 2,500 truants in DCPS high schools. Sending all of them—or their parents—to Family Court would swamp the court. Nor is it reasonable to send half the student population of several schools to court. Imagine the news coverage. Unfortunately, the court can do little with chronic truants that is constructive. It can order them to attend school. But when they don’t obey, the Court is in the position of threatening other punishments, such as detention, which do not improve school attendance. Truancy is not delinquency—even if it is a risk factor for delinquency—and should not be treated as such. And because punishing chronic truants through the court is unrealistic, the threat to do so is not very credible and has little deterrent value.
2. Are these high schools especially bad at managing attendance? Not necessarily. We found that the level of absenteeism across high schools in 2010-11 was very strongly predicted by the absenteeism history of current students when they were in eighth grade.
The differences among schools in their absenteeism levels were mostly about the tendencies of their students when they arrived at high school, than about how the schools managed those tendencies. I conclude that the most effective way to reduce high-school absenteeism is to address it before high school.
3. I believe that truancy and educational improvement and reform are largely interwoven, and at scale, these problems cannot be addressed independently. We have a chicken and egg problem: unless students attend school, they cannot learn, but unless the school is an effective place to learn, students have too little reason to attend. So, these problems need to be addressed simultaneously. The Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Kaya Henderson, has made clear in statements and testimony to the DC City Council that she believes schools need to be effective and engaging places for youth in order to make headway in addressing truancy. I agree.
Read our first post about truancy in DC.
Filed under: Other, People Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 2nd, 2012
At some public high schools in DC, most of the students were chronically truant, with 15 or more unexcused absences during the 2009-10 school year, according to a recent report by the DC Inspector General.
We recently evaluated a pilot intervention to combat chronic truancy, called the Case Management Partnership Initiative. It was tried with 9th graders at Anacostia and Ballou high schools, which have the highest truancy rates in DCPS. The intervention links truants and their families to case management and social services, coordinated with the school. The basic idea is that barriers to school attendance are often found in the home, so that reducing truancy requires intervention with the family. The immediate target of the intervention is to address the family needs of students with attendance problems. The hope is that this will also improve student attendance.
Our evaluation focused on the pilot’s implementation stage. Roughly 30 9th graders participated in the pilot program, which successfully linked families to needed services and likely improved family well-being. Did the program reduce truancy? That’s not so clear. Truancy clearly worsened from 8th to 9th grade for the program participants as well as for their 9th-grade schoolmates. Participants also began with worse truancy than their classmates. The program may have mitigated the truancy increase we would have seen otherwise; we are unsure. (This pilot program was too small to rule out chance findings, and did not involve a strong comparison group.)
But even if the program led to somewhat better truancy than otherwise, participants still ended the year with worse truancy than their classmates. Why? And does this result contradict the program’s assumption that truancy is often family-based? I don’t think so.
Instead, our results prompt me to consider the relationship between the individual student (and his or her family) and school norms. When truant behavior stands out as unusual, intervening with a truant and his or her family may be enough to return the student to typical levels of school attendance.
But the intervention wasn’t tested in such a climate. Instead, the program was tried in high schools where most students are chronically truant. When skipping school doesn’t stand out as unusual, I suspect that removing student- and family-based barriers to attendance often won’t be enough to motivate attendance. Reducing truancy will also require simultaneously changing school and community norms about school attendance. DCPS and the Interagency Truancy Task Force have been attempting to do so through a public awareness campaign.
Is there a tipping point in truancy, beyond which a school-wide transformation is a necessary ingredient in attendance reform? I suspect so. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but I would guess that it is considerably below 50 percent truancy.
Above the tipping point, the school is caught in a vicious cycle: to improve attendance patterns requires improving individual students’ attendance, but improving individual truants’ behavior also requires simultaneously changing the norms of school attendance. It may also take intervening at earlier ages. This is not an effort for the faint-hearted. It will take thoughtful experimentation, along with good evaluation, over the long haul.
Filed under: Government 1 Comment »
| Posted: July 30th, 2012
About 10 years ago, I was part of a scientific team that reviewed the literature on the effectiveness of firearms legislation for reducing violence. Our team, a non-federal task force convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published findings in 2003 and 2005. We concluded—as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently mentioned—that there was no way to know whether any of those laws are effective. A panel convened by the National Research Council reached the same conclusion.
Our team examined seven types of gun laws, from bans on particular kinds of weapons to those that mandate easy access to concealed-weapons permits, sometimes called “right-to-carry” laws. Firearms restrictions are advocated to reduce the lethality of violence; right-to-carry laws are advocated as a means to deter criminals. But such laws do several things simultaneously. While intended to deter would-be offenders, right-to-carry may also spark an arms race that leads criminals to carry ever more dangerous firearms. And they also make it easier for conflicts to quickly escalate in lethality. Put such different effects together and it is hard to confidently predict the net benefit or harm.
Why can’t we tell if these laws increase or reduce violence?
There are two main reasons. First, we don’t do controlled experiments and randomly assign some people to be subject to gun laws. Instead, laws are passed in particular places at particular times. But the jurisdictions that pass such laws are different from those that don’t, so simple cross-sectional comparisons—which are very tempting—are not informative about the effects of those laws. Such laws aren’t passed at random times, either, so that simple before-and-after comparisons aren’t much better. Instead, convincing studies of the effects of such policies require hard thinking, good data, sophisticated analyses, and lots of peer review and replication. Even then, the results often prove inconclusive.
Second, U.S. crime data are terrible. Homicide data from public health systems are good, because almost all deaths in the U.S. are recorded. A few studies capitalized on them; results were mixed.
To look at violence generally, researchers rely on crime data. Our main source is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), based on aggregate reports to the FBI from the more than 18,000 police departments in the country. Across jurisdictions, the variability in what is reported renders comparisons almost meaningless, especially at the county level. Criminologists—who agree on little else—have deemed using the UCR data to rank cities as “invalid, damaging, and irresponsible.” Reporting is also remarkably incomplete, not to mention the all-too-common claims of jurisdictions underreporting crime. (Our other primary other data source, the National Crime Victimization Survey, is nationally representative but too small to disaggregate to jurisdictions.)
Some statistically sophisticated studies have tried to estimate the effects of gun laws on violence, using UCR data. But in the end, you cannot build strong conclusions on unreliable data. The nascent National Incident-Based Report System would be much more reliable but is more expensive. The mission of the Bureau of Justice Statistics is to produce reliable criminal justice statistics, but it is underfunded. Over the past decade, the National Institute of Justice has tried to improve the UCR data, but these are baby steps. It is long past due for the United States to set up more valid and reliable crime reporting systems.
Meanwhile, in the absence of definitive evidence, what should we conclude about gun laws? Personally, I don’t see any reason not to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Isn’t their only purpose to kill many people quickly? For most other weapons restrictions, the genie may be out of the bottle. So many guns are already in circulation that bans now have little chance of appreciably affecting criminal violence. Surprisingly, perhaps, the number of households with firearms may be declining.
What about right-to-carry laws and other attempts to allow more citizens to arm themselves for defensive purposes? As explained above, I don’t know whether such laws deter more everyday violence than they facilitate. I am confident that they would not deter mass shootings by assailants who expect to be caught and/or killed. Whether many armed civilian moviegoers would have been able to stop the latest shooter without harming many others in the crossfire is a more difficult question. I remain skeptical.
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life 3 Comments »
| Posted: January 5th, 2012
A recent three-part series in the Washington Post on the “I Have A Dream” program raises the question: What does it mean for a program to “work”? This question is critical in the current age of budgetary pressures to fund only effective and evidence-based programs. Yet, it seems to me that we often use two very different standards to discuss whether something works.
In 1988, two philanthropists promised to pay for the college educations of 59 fifth-graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary School in Prince George’s County, if the students graduated from high school. The program hoped that this promise of college support (together with other support along the way from the program) would motivate all 59 students to graduate from high school and go on to college. In the Washington Post series, Paul Schwartzman tracked what happened to each student. Some of the “Dreamers,” as they were called, were very successful—alumni included a lawyer, a doctor, a track star, and a cellist. Others were somewhat successful, attending some college and obtaining middle-class jobs. Some had more tragic outcomes—one was killed and one incarcerated.
This focus on individual students’ lives leads readers to judge the program’s success by whether it worked for each participant. Using this standard, the program did not work for the students who failed to graduate high school or for those with tragic life outcomes. Likewise, effective medications may not work for every person. For the patient who dies of heart failure after taking Lipitor, the drug did not “work.” This is one common meaning of whether a program works— for a particular individual.
So what should we conclude about the “I Have A Dream” program? The highest hopes—college attendance and graduation for all participants—were not realized. Does that mean the program was a failure? No. At the program level, rather than the individual level, asking whether a program “works” is a different question: Did the program improve outcomes beyond what would have happened in the program’s absence, on average? No program is a silver bullet and none can guarantee a good outcome. Rather, much as with effective cholesterol-lowering medication, effective programs are expected to be helpful ingredients in the lives of participants.
How about the Dreamers? The Washington Post series finds that “at least 49 of the 59 Dreamers—83 percent—graduated from high school or got their GEDs…far surpassing Prince George’s overall rate in 1995. Almost half the students enrolled in college.” This suggests that, at the program level, it was likely effective. Of course, knowing only what happened to program participants does not tell us if the program improved outcomes. We also need to make some assumptions about what would have happened in the absence of the program, which evaluation researchers call “the counterfactual”—but that’s a topic for another day.
My point here is that focusing on individuals can obscure a program’s effectiveness by setting the bar far too high. Effective programs are those that provide incremental improvement over the alternatives.
If we are to make evidence-based policy decisions about which programs to fund, we need to experiment with programs and study their outcomes. We need to understand how and when a program works. Tracking participants’ outcomes, as the Post did, provides critical information—but we must not take individual successes and failures as a measure of whether a program “works” in general. Doing so may lead us to miss the value of effective programs—or worse, to judge them as failures.
Filed under: Government Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 7th, 2011
What kind of attention promotes effective crime policy? On the one hand, too much attention seems to undermine effective policy making. Keeping crime largely off of the front page is critical to rational, deliberate criminal justice policy-making. When crime makes headlines, crime policy gravitates toward the crime du jour, and is easily hijacked by emotions and by politicians fanning emotional flames.
As a case in point, states’ fiscal crises are leading them to rethink sentencing policies – in ways that were unthinkable during the crime surge of the 1980s and early 1990s. Only after crime has declined for over fifteen years can policy-makers consider lowering sentences and redirecting prison dollars toward less punitive approaches that can maintain public safety. Possibilities include alternative sanctions, alternative use of criminal justice resources, and child-focused crime prevention. But when the level of attention to crime is high, the political risk of being painted as “soft on crime” makes such reforms all but impossible.
And, yet, without enough attention to crime, do we lose the political motivation to fund crime prevention, criminal justice reforms, and rigorous research and evaluation? After all, even with the crime drop, our violent crime rates are still much too high, and higher than other developed countries. Don’t we need continued attention to crime until criminal justice reforms and policy research receives funding commensurate with the importance of crime?
My conclusion is that we need systematic, sustained, and moderate attention to crime and criminal justice. Such lower-intensity attention allows policy-makers and the public to consider sentencing policy across all crimes, not just crime by crime, as happens in response to crime crises. We are long overdue for a sustained and systematic examination of criminal justice policy, along the lines proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, in his National Criminal Justice Commission legislation calling for “a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the criminal justice system from top to bottom.” This measure has been blocked in the Senate for now, as noted this week by the Washington Post and New York Times, although it received bipartisan support in the House last year. The time to launch such an initiative is now, before the next unanticipated crime crisis or crime wave.
Filed under: Crime 1 Comment »
| Posted: September 12th, 2011
As luck would have it, I flew on September 11. This set me reflecting about the security measures that increasingly surround us since Sept 11, 2001, particularly here in D.C. Do these measures increase our security, our feelings of security, or both? That depends.
First, there are real security measures, some more effective than others. These include the barriers to trucks that now surround federal buildings, metal detectors and x-ray machines even at entrances to museums, ubiquitous security cameras, and patrolling officers. At the airport we also have x-rays, explosive detectors, shoe removal, prohibition of liquids, and, most recently, whole body imagers. When they work, these measures help detect and eliminate threats before they can be carried out. In a democracy, we debate how effective they are and how easy it is for motivated offenders to evade them. We also debate whether their inconvenience and cost are worth the extra security they provide.
But real security measures are not the only ones we encounter. We also encounter faux security measures. Unmanned cameras and perhaps uniformed security personnel with little training don’t help detect and eliminate threats, but might deter would-be offenders who can’t tell real (manned cameras) from faux (cameras casings) measures.
Yet other measures have no preventive potential, but might have forensic utility after a security incident. Showing IDs and signing in to buildings might deter offenders not motivated enough to mask their identities. Many security cameras, likewise, are primarily for forensic potential. Such measures might deter common crime but seem to have little value in deterring terrorists, who generally want their causes to be known and want to be identified. Suicide bombers, of course, will not be deterred by such measures.
And, finally, we have what I think of as fake security measures. The most obvious example is requiring people to show ID before entering a building without recording or comparing those IDs to anything. What possible security value can that serve? They seem to be primarily symbolic, intended to somehow make us feel secure.
Psychologists who study responses to stress distinguish between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping attempts to address the problem causing the stress. Emotion-focused coping tries to manage emotions, without addressing the problem, through, say, distraction or entertainment. People often turn to emotion-focused coping when problem-focused coping seems inadequate or ineffective.
Symbolic security measures may make some people feel secure. But they come with real costs. Not only do they use real resources, they may also make us feel more insecure, by indicating that security measures that work are inadequate.
How many of the security measures around us are symbolic rather than real? I suspect there are more than commonly recognized. For example, are automatic weapons of real security value in airports? When they appeared in airports shortly after Sept 11, 2011, some of my acquaintances felt reassured. I doubted whether they had much real security value. Would soldiers use automatic weapons to address known or suspected terrorists in crowded places? Probably not.
In a democracy, symbolic security measures come at the additional cost of obscuring the true state of affairs. Ten years after 9/11, I hope we are confident enough to begin to distinguish real from fake security measures, to eliminate symbolic measures, and to be problem-focused rather than emotion-focused in responding to real threats.
Filed under: Other 3 Comments »
| Posted: June 23rd, 2011
Recently I have noticed that our knowledge concerning crime and crime prevention is moving in multiple directions. On one side, confidence is building that we now know enough about what works, especially in prevention with individuals at risk for offending, to justify pushes to mandate increased use of evidence-based programs. We have come far enough to now be grappling with the challenges of the next stage, including: trying to scale-up effective programs, understanding what makes program implementation succeed or fail, and maintaining investment to develop and test new programs. This is a sea change from the age of "Nothing Works" of 30 years ago.
At the same time, our relative ignorance concerning crime trends and their drivers has lately become much more apparent. The broad and sustained crime decline that we have enjoyed since the mid- to late-1990s was not anticipated by crime experts. Even more surprising is that economic conditions of the Great Recession have not spurred increased crime. This has gone on long enough to produce recent expressions of puzzlement from many crime experts.
This begs the question: Why have we made so much more progress in developing evidence-based prevention programs for individuals than in understanding macro-level crime trends? Two basic explanations occur to me.
First, at the individual-level we use experiments (and quasi-experiments) to confidently isolate the effects of one intervention from the effects of other things. And because we can test one idea at a time, we don’t have to figure out which interventions are the most powerful before trying to make headway against less powerful—but still significant-- factors. We can pursue stronger and weaker forces in parallel. But in macro-level studies, we can rarely experiment with crime’s drivers, and hardly ever in a way that isolates their effects. Instead we must simply observe them as they happen, and we are less able to confidently isolate the effects of particular macro-level factors.
Second, our knowledge accumulates much faster for individual-level intervention studies than for macro-level studies for several reasons. To find out if something works at the individual level, each study needs to involve tens to hundreds of program participants. But a macro-level study needs data from thousands or millions of people. Also, most individual-level intervention studies take months to years of data while macro-level studies can require decades of data. And some important macro-level effects on crime can take decades to develop, and even longer to learn about. A case in point: two much-debated “crime decline” hypotheses concern whether changes in abortion law or the removal of lead from children's environments have reduced teen-age crime. Put together, all of this means that we have--and will probably always have--many more distinct, independent studies of individual-level interventions than of macro-level effects.
We are at an optimistic moment for criminal justice policy because we have made notable progress in developing the evidence about what works with individuals, and also because persistently low crime rates create an opportunity for more thoughtful and evidence-based policy. Even so, if my speculations here are even remotely correct, it’s chastening to think that it will likely be decades before we understand enough about macro-level crime trends to anticipate either large crime increases or decreases.
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