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Posts By John Roman

Bio: John Roman, Ph.D. is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where his research focuses on evaluations of innovative crime control policies and justice programs. Dr. Roman is also the executive director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute (DCPI) and manages DCPI’s operations, provides oversight of all research, and leads the development and implementation of the cost-benefit model. He directs several studies funded by the National Institute of Justice, including two randomized trials of the use of DNA in property crime investigations, an evaluation of post-conviction DNA evidence testing to estimate rates of wrongful conviction, and a study developing a blueprint for the use of forensic evidence by law enforcement. Dr. Roman is the coeditor of Cost Benefit Analysis and Crime Control, and, Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse and the author of dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters. Dr. Roman serves as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University.

Social impact bonds: Solving government problems in four (not so) easy steps

Author: John Roman

| Posted: July 18th, 2014




At the cutting edge of new social innovation financing are social impact bonds (SIBs), a potentially transformative idea. SIB transactions merge traditional public/private partnerships and performance based contracting. Private investors invest in demonstrated social programs, with a promise from government to repay that investment, plus a profit, if predetermined performance targets are met.

The deals transfer risk from the government to the private sector and generate new capital to invest in evidence-based interventions that would otherwise go unfunded.

But on their current path, they are unlikely to fully achieve their promise. Today's deals are bespoke, complex, and have large transactional costs. They also replicate current mistakes in how government purchases services, rather than reforming that process.

Today's deals are mainly efforts to fund well-intentioned programs that are appealing to all parties to the transaction: the government, investors, and social service providers. But in order to satisfy the interests of all parties whose incentives are not aligned, rather than creating real reform, they end up funding the lowest common denominator— something that sounds good, is low risk, but does not solve big problems.

There is a better way to use these transactions to create broader and deeper systems reform, using the SIB development process as the mechanism for reform.

The deals funded by social innovation financing should be the product of a real, intensive strategic planning process, rather than a one-off response to a particular opportunity.

Step one should be an effort to understand what drives the most frustrating costs to government: individuals, families, and places that cycle endlessly through our systems.

Who are these “frequent flyers” who continually touch many systems and generate disproportionately high expenses for taxpayers? Examples include:

  • Kids involved in juvenile justice, child welfare, and special education.
  • Adults who are chronically homeless, mentally ill, and returning from prison.
  • City blocks that the police, fire, and public works spend all their time patrolling.

Step two is to determine why government is ineffective in treating these frequent flyers. The answer is deceptively simple: government knows what it spends, but not what it buys. That is, we know what is in the budget, but in today’s system, we don’t know what outcomes that spending produces. The current procurement process creates no incentives to prioritize outcomes over outputs. A SIB requires that the outcomes are explicit.

Step three is to determine if there are evidence-based interventions that would alleviate the problem. It’s important to remember that not every significant problem has an evidence-based solution. Today, research evidence is generally constrained to a single problem, such as the effectiveness of drug treatment. There is much less evidence around broad social phenomena, like increasing high school completion. Care is thus warranted in prioritizing interventions for SIB funding.

For the final step, a clear-eyed decision must be made about whether SIBs are the right financing mechanism. It should be noted that SIBs are not the answer to every undercapitalized intervention. For example, some frequent flyer populations are so small that a reasonable comparison group cannot be found, and thus it is impossible to determine if outcome targets were met.

The social innovation field is currently in an evolutionary stage, with a focus on building a SIB-ready sector, which simply means educating and experimenting across all parties involved in these transactions.

In order to get to a stage where these innovations are scaled and serve high proportions of targeted populations, a much more strategic approach is required.

And that process is worth doing, even if no SIB is ever financed. The simple process of government articulating what its problems are, what its goals are, and what the potential solutions could be would be a tremendously positive reform in its own right.

Photo: Steve Pepple /

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Children, Children's health and development, Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Delinquency and crime, Economic well-being, Families, Neighborhoods, Cities, and Metros, Nonprofits and Philanthropy, Social impact |Tags: , , , ,
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Why don’t governments implement evidence-based best practices?

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 19th, 2014

In 1975, Robert Martinson famously wrote that “nothing works” in treating convicted criminals and thus he concluded that rehabilitation in any form was not cost-effective. As discouraging as the criminal justice research was at the time, it was no more pessimistic than education, or public health, or child welfare research.

Today, however, we have mountains of evidence about effective programs. There is rigorous, transparent, objective evidence about what works in schools, what works to prevent violence, how we can help high-risk adolescents get on a better life path, and how to curb criminal offending in general. There are resources that can help guide governments find best practices in almost any sector, from child welfare to health care.

We don’t have a solution to every problem, but there are evidence-based solutions to many problems. But these programs focus on very narrow populations. If a government is looking to reduce drug use within the criminal justice system, we can provide precise estimates of the likelihood that community-based treatment will reduce new offending.

sibs_blogBut what if government wants to reduce all types of criminal reoffending? Drug treatment alone is not enough to accomplish that objective. You also have to improve work skills, deal with mental illness, chronic homelessness, anger management, and more. There is no silver bullet for recidivism that can be summarized in a nice figure like the one above.

A few months ago, I was asked by a local government to help them think through what kind of social services they might finance through a new financing mechanism called social impact bonds (SIBs). SIBs are used to fund evidence-based programs, shifting the risk of new investment from the government to the private or philanthropic sector. The result could be an infusion of new money to fund programs demonstrated to work.

The local government’s particular question: How do we increase high school completion in our city by 20 percent?

Great question.

The problem is that what we do in the social sciences is ask very particular questions about the effectiveness of very narrow programs. If the goal is to reduce new offenses from highly at-risk youth, research provides an answer. If the goal is to increase high school completion among all youth, that is much more difficult to answer.

Florida Redirection is a cost-effective intervention for the highest-risk adolescents, a group that is a tiny (but expensive) fragment of high school dropouts. Reducing the high-risk adolescent dropout rate helps overall high school completion, but only somewhat. If you want to reduce overall high school dropout rates, you have to do lots of things. You have to have effective mentoring. You have to improve math literacy. You have to do out-of-the-the box things, like reduce asthma, which is a leading cause of truancy.

At the moment, we have no idea how to do these things in combination. Just like drug therapy for an illness, two really good medications could complement each other—or have adverse consequences. But that’s not how we study social service programs today.

In the United Kingdom, though, they are taking this issue head on. There, governments are testing 10 SIBs to improve the life chances of NEET youth (NEET being Not in Education, not Employed, not in a Training program), who often become huge drains on social resources as they age.

Each SIB tries a different combination of remedies for the NEET youth. And ultimately, that’s the way we will figure out the solution to these big policy problems.

The point is this: We don’t have solutions that cross programs and sectors yet. But we can if we use SIBs and other social innovations as a way to experiment, to test ideas about how evidence-based programs can work together.

Until then, research will have the wrong answers for policymakers’ questions, and policymakers will not pursue the evidence-based answers researchers can provide.

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Economic Growth and Productivity, National (US), Tracking the economy |Tags:

How government can (finally) start paying for success

Author: John Roman and Kelly Walsh

| Posted: June 11th, 2014

Government doesn’t always work as well as it should, but there are solutions. Today we released new research on the five steps to implementing a pay for success (PFS) project. This is a new concept that can break through traditional barriers to government efficiency to help deliver social programs that produce a public good, government savings, and private profit.

Injecting private capital into the public sector addresses the problem of widespread underfunding of public sector interventions and innovations. PFS, social impact bonds (SIBs), and scaled finance are all similar models that share a core concept: using private capital to buy outcomes, while promising a profit if the program is successful.

Today, government pays for programs regardless of whether they work, and bears all of the risk of that investment. PFS transfers risk from the government to the private sector– philanthropy, venture capital, or commercial banks. In a PFS deal, government only pays if the program achieves predetermined outcomes.

PFS is a special solution for special problems. This is not a tool for pet projects. It’s best suited for programs with a track record of actual success and programs that serve people who use large amounts of public resources and touch multiple systems, like family-based therapies that are designed to work with the most at-risk adolescents and which have the strongest evidence-base.

Here’s how it works. Each deal requires a collaborative effort: private investors, such as commercial banks, high-net-worth investors, and philanthropists, supply capital; nonprofit service providers supply evidence-based programs; a “knowledge intermediary” interprets the evidence for government and investors; an independent researcher evaluates program outcomes; and the government agrees to repay the investor, plus a profit if the program meets its objectives. If the program does not achieve performance goals, the investors lose all or some of their investment and any potential return.

Governments begin the process by contracting with a knowledge intermediary that manages the process and identifies costly, recurrent social problems and the evidence-based programs to solve them. A financial intermediary negotiates with investors and the government, and the intermediaries ensure that service delivery adheres to an evidence-based model.

The evidence is the key to these deals. If the PFS-funded program has a limited evidence base, the risk of failure may kill the deal before it starts. Investors won’t invest if the likelihood of success is uncertain, and governments won’t commit to paying a profit on programs that aren’t grounded in evidence.

PFS is potentially transformative. It funds solutions to problems that are too big for current funding mechanisms, and shifts risk from the government to the private sector, allowing government to innovate in ways it cannot today. Most importantly, a PFS deal demands data. In order to entice investors, the transaction requires that data is acquired and shared, that target performance metrics are realistic (for investors) and aspirational (for government), and that all costs and benefits are specified. In order for the deal to be properly priced, prior research must be carefully analyzed to provide transparency to all parties, and that data and knowledge must be shared across sectors. No other public financing mechanism places these requirements on government, which is why government is so inefficient today.

PFS is being tested. The challenge for the first generation of PFS and SIBs has been to prove the concept and to demonstrate that a PFS transaction can work. The challenge for the next generation is to jump from funding a single program to funding a portfolio of evidence-based programs. Just as there is no one cause of our most pressing social needs, there is no one solution. The PFS deals and SIBs of the future should support a multifaceted solution to these complex and expensive problems.

Stopping problems before they start sounds like common sense, but efforts to fund preventative programs are stymied by the nine barriers outlined in yesterday’s post. PFS financing may break those barriers and offer a new route to positive social change.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Aging, Courts and sentencing, Crime and Justice, Finance, Performance Management and Measurement |Tags: , , , , ,

Nine reasons why government doesn’t work

Author: John Roman

| Posted: June 10th, 2014




State, county, and municipal governments are mainly in the business of buying services for their constituents, paying providers to tackle a broad spectrum of social problems: health, education, employment, and justice, among others. But these governments face significant barriers to reducing costs and delivering high-quality services.


  1. Know what they spend, but not what they buy. Governments keep track of their spending, but have few, if any, quality controls to monitor what they’re really buying. Governments have limited knowledge of what services are actually being provided and of the quality of those services.
  2. Prefer small, short-term benefits to larger long-term benefits. Rather than developing and implementing long-term solutions, governments overwhelmingly focus on fixing short-term problems. The emphasis is placed on fixing preventable problems, rather than preventing those problems in the first place. For instance, instead of funding obesity prevention efforts, we pay enormous sums to remediate diabetes. Why? Because the people in power won’t be around when savings from prevention occur.
  1. Apply well-intentioned, intuitive programs with no evidence-base. The research literature is littered with evaluations of programs that sound promising, but don’t work. Take D.A.R.E., for instance. Dozens of studies have shown that the program may be counterproductive, and may actually increase youth drug experimentation by exposing and demystifying drugs for kids who have not yet encountered them.
  2. Are underfunded to the point that effective programs are not scalable. For more than two decades, research has shown that drug-involved offenders receiving drug treatment in the community go on to commit significantly fewer crimes than drug-involved offenders who are incarcerated. Yet recent studies show that less than four percent of drug-involved offenders receive court-monitored treatment. The problem? Drug treatment is more expensive than criminal case processing and the resources to expand simply aren’t there.
  3. Are risk-averse. Governments rarely fund programs that have excellent average effects, but occasional unintended consequences. While drug courts overall lead to less crime, it is inevitable that some drug-involved offenders treated in the community will commit crimes that incarceration would have prevented. While the overall effect is more public safety, the fear of the less-dangerous side effects, like an occasional preventable crime, almost always wins out.
  4. Aren’t designed for innovation. Not only are there substantial cultural barriers to new ideas in government, but the entire procurement and purchasing process makes innovation almost impossible. Nonprofits and commercial vendors cannot bring good ideas to government; government must solicit innovation (and therefore must come up with the innovative ideas for potential service providers to respond to). This reduces conflicts of interests and under-the-table deals, but stifles innovation.
  5. Have a “wrong-pockets” problem. Government budgets are split into department budgets, and split again into agency budgets. So if one agency or department has a winning idea that reduces overall costs to government, that idea will only go forward if that agency is the one that keeps the savings. If those who benefit from savings from successful evidence-based programs do not include the agency covering the bill, that agency or department is unlikely to pursue the idea.
  6. Don’t share data and knowledge. Not only are budgets rigidly separated, but knowledge and data are as well. Each department tends to be isolated from the rest of government, particularly with respect to information sharing and knowledge transfer. For most governments, data systems not only can’t communicate, but are often prohibited from doing so. If a child is in special education and involved in the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system, most places don’t allow those agencies to share case information, much less encourage them to do so. Thus, the response is inefficient—and the conflicting solutions can make problems worse.
  7. Don’t communicate across borders. If the issues with communication and cost-sharing within governments are serious, the issues with sharing across governments are much more severe. Problems cross borders. Homelessness, gang disputes, pollution, poverty, etc. are not confined to particular geographies and the solutions shouldn’t be, either. But intergovernmental cooperation is often almost impossible.

The result is an inefficient system that at best can be made more efficient, and at worst can do more harm than good.

There is a solution, however—one that addresses all of these problems. I will discuss that tomorrow.

City Hall image from Shutterstock. Follow John on Twitter.

Filed under: Children, Crime and Justice, Economic Growth and Productivity, Geographies, Health and Health Policy, Local, Metro |Tags: , , , , ,

Dear academics: I love Twitter and you should, too. Here’s how you can.

Author: John Roman

| Posted: February 28th, 2014




I wrote most of this post more than a month ago. It sat in my outbox for weeks for the same reason that most academics are reluctant to be on Twitter—I was worried that if I posted it, it would diminish my scholarship. After all, if I am writing about something as seemingly frivolous as Twitter, it must mean that I am not a serious person.

But ultimately, I decided to post it, mainly motivated by Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times article condemning scholars for cloistering themselves in the shroud of academia, and in the process, making themselves irrelevant in the public discourse. As unpopular as it may be among my colleagues, I happen to believe Kristof’s thesis is generally correct. Pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is wonderful, but irresponsible for anyone with a public policy orientation.

But rather than fighting that battle, I thought I would do something more constructive. So, I’m sharing my guiding principles for scholars using Twitter to talk about their work.

One way to think about Twitter is to work through the mechanics of tweeting and following and gaining an audience. But maybe a better way to approach Twitter is to think about how you create your Twitter gestalt, your personal narrative. I propose starting there. In no particular order, here are my 19 Twitter commandments (19 because prime numbers are awesome). This is my script—yours will be different.

1. Put the social in social network. Interact as much as you can.

2. Don't be scared. You can delete a tweet. And even though a mistake will be archived forever, seriously, no one cares. Just behave the way you would in a business meeting and you'll be fine.

3. Writing a tweet is about writing a headline. Experiment to figure out how to write headlines that resonate with others.

4. Follow people who say interesting things that you will want to comment on or retweet, particularly folks in the business (that includes reporters, policymakers, and other compelling tweeters, not just researchers/academics).

5. Stick to the script. My script is: be myself— serious researcher and archivist of current events with enough humor to be human. However I behave at work, that’s how I behave on Twitter.

6. No politics. Ever.

7. No personal business. Ever. (Most of my communications colleagues disagreed with this point, but as I said, this is my script.)

8. Whenever reasonable, link to your written work. But only when it's reasonable.

9. Promote your colleagues. It's really hard to self-promote in a human way, so let's help each other.

10. Be human. There are lots of hilarious parodies of academics on twitter. Don’t be one.

11. If you have the *slightest* doubt about a tweet, don't tweet (but know that your doubts will wane as you get more comfortable with the medium).

12. Don't respond to tweets by big national figures. It's like publicly shouting at your TV.

13. Be gracious. Never punch down. You have status (whether you believe it or not).

14. Be gracious. Promote the work of people outside your organization.

15. Be gracious. Check your @connect tab to see who is connecting with you and respond.

16. Be gracious. If you find a story on Twitter and re-write the headline, give the original author a “hat tip” (H/T @JohnKRoman).

17. Be well-rounded, and tweet about stuff you don't study.

18. Never, ever go on Klout or Kred or any of the others to see your ”score.” It will lead you to engage in social networking practices that will violate every principle above.

19. If you feel the need to snark (and the pull of the snark on Twitter is strong, my friend) create another account (they're free, you know).

Enjoy Twitter. It's a wonderful, enriching, democratizing platform.

Follow John Roman (@JohnKRoman) on Twitter. Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute

Filed under: Other |Tags: , , , , ,

It's time to separate race and US firearm policy

Author: John Roman

| Posted: February 18th, 2014



Cory Strolla, Michael Dunn

It’s time to separate race and US firearms policy.

Racial disparities exist throughout the American judicial system. As I’ve written before, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be stopped and frisked, to have their car searched at a traffic stop, to be arrested and convicted on a drug offense (even though they are less likely to consume illegal drugs—see Figure 18), and to receive the death penalty.

But it wasn’t until the shooting of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial that another huge racial disparity became evident. African Americans who kill a white victim are ten times less likely to be deemed justified in killing than whites who kill a black victim. The recent trial of Michael Dunn, who was charged with the murder of Jordan Davis, pushed the issue back in the spotlight.

That disparity is not proof that there is racial animus in criminal justice system case processing. But potential sources of any disparity need to be examined empirically, and the magnitude of this disparity is so large that it warrants particular attention.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but I believe that most Americans would be appalled by this apparent injustice and seek remedies if the issue was not so clouded by disputes around the Second Amendment. Those who favor gun rights want to see gun ownership protected, which might make them more open to a narrative where the victims of these crimes deserved their fate. Those who favor gun control might be more open to a narrative where the dead are victims only.

But if we were to separate the Second Amendment issues from the racial disparity question, we would ask a different set of questions. We would ask what differentiates homicides with a black shooter and a white victim from those with a white shooter and black victim.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requires local law enforcement to submit data on homicides, which are available to the public through the Supplementary Homicide Reports. These data describe each event, whether the victim and offender knew each other, what kind of weapon was used, whether either was law enforcement, and whether the homicide was ruled to be justified.

But what’s lacking in these data is the context of the killing. We know that homicides with a black perpetrator and a white victim are more likely to be robberies or burglaries that go sideways and end up in death—we just don’t know how often this happens. Are robberies gone bad 10 times more likely with a black assailant? We don’t know. But we need to find out to understand this disparity.

The flip side is that we also do not know much about white-on-black killings. We know that between 2005 and 2009, there were about 80,000 homicides in the United States. Since we don’t know who the killer was in about 40 percent of murders, we only know all the facts of the case in a little less than 50,000 homicides.

But, out of just under 50,000 homicides, an older white man killed a younger black man with a gun when they were strangers and neither was law enforcement only 23 times. Dunn and Zimmerman thus participated in extremely rare events. Neither was convicted, which was the outcome of nine of the 23 cases with that fact pattern (39 percent). By contrast, when a black American kills a white American, it is ruled to be justified about 1 percent of the time.

This issue deserves much greater examination, and it would be relatively easy to study. What’s missing from the FBI data is the context of the crime—in particular, whether it occurred on a street or in a home. If there is less than a tenfold difference in where these crimes occur, that suggests the disparity is unwarranted.

The problem is, we are having two debates simultaneously. We are debating the meaning of the Second Amendment at the same time we are grappling with racial disparities in the most serious of crimes.

If we can divorce race and firearms, we can talk about racial disparities in America and figure out if we need to create a more just system.

And then we can talk about the Second Amendment.

Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson, left, points at the defendant Michael Dunn, far right, as he speaks to his attorney, Cory Strolla, second from right, during the state's closing arguments in Dunn's trial, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn is charged with fatally shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenient store in 2012. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Filed under: Crime and Justice, Crime and justice statistics, Racial and ethnic disparities |Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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Justin Bieber is Exhibit A for a third criminal justice system

Author: Zach McDade and John Roman

| Posted: January 24th, 2014




Nineteen-year-old megastar Justin Bieber dominated social media and the news this week following his arrest for allegedly street racing a yellow Lamborghini in Miami while drunk and high.

Brazen and unnecessary though his escapade undoubtedly was, there’s a good argument that he should not be processed as an adult under the law. In fact, Bieber might be just the flashy example we need of a third path in the criminal justice system.

Back up a bit: why are we so attached to the idea that 18 is a magical barrier between childhood and adulthood? Much research documents that people’s brains – particularly the parts dedicated to reasoning and judgment – don’t finish developing until the mid-twenties. Emotional and psychological maturity follow at about the same pace.

Maybe all of that means that we actually need a three-tiered criminal justice system, one that treats kids and adults in different ways, while also making room for that important middle ground: young adults in their late teens and early twenties.

Consider this: in Florida, because Bieber is 19, he will be processed in the adult criminal justice system. But, had he already been in the custody of the juvenile justice system for a delinquency case, he would be eligible to remain there until he was 21.

That may be a better approach, with mounting evidence that putting juveniles in adult facilities harms their futures. It results in limitations on housing and employment after release, and limits with whom they can associate. What’s more, treating juveniles as adults tends to increase the number of crimes they commit as adults.

Instead, we all stand to gain from a third system geared toward young adults for whom a therapeutic rather than punitive response is likely to be more beneficial to everyone. Florida law already recognizes that someone like Bieber is somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. Successfully intervening with Bieber, already immeasurably influential, could positively affect how we think about young people and crime to the benefit of thousands of others.

So, what would that look like?

Juvenile justice systems were intended to act in loco parentis (in the place of a parent). They are therapeutic in orientation, and the best systems focus on family-based therapies, where parents, siblings, and friends are all incorporated into a home-based process where delinquents learn to make better, more pro-social decisions.

Historically, adult criminal justice systems also had a therapeutic philosophy, but therapy fell out of favor in the 1970's. Today, by and large, the criminal justice system is about punishment, although more rehabilitative approaches are present in recent state reform efforts.

But over the last two decades, some traditional juvenile-oriented practices have crept back into the adult system. In particular, problem-solving courts create a long-term relationship between judge and offender, who engage in an ongoing discussion about the offender’s behavior, their success in therapy, and their choices. That is the model for the Young Adult System.

And that model would save society money, prevent crimes, and give young adults like Bieber a chance to break the cycle of crime and delinquency.

Follow Zach McDade (@zmcdade) and John Roman (@JohnKRoman) on Twitter.

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Delinquency and crime, Juvenile delinquency and youth gangs |Tags: , , , ,

How should young adults be punished for their crimes?

Author: John Roman

| Posted: January 14th, 2014



The idea of holding children less responsible for their crimes has been common law for centuries. But what age marks the line between childhood and adulthood?

In 1996, 13 states tried youth under 18 as adults. Today, only nine do— and many of those states are revisiting that choice.

While raising the age for adult criminal responsibility is an important step, such measures do not go far enough. As every parent knows—and every child eventually realizes—defining a bright line between childhood and adulthood has always created a false dichotomy. It is time to consider the idea that there should be a place in our legal system for those who commit crimes who are no longer children, but are not yet fully adults.

Consider this question: What is so magical about an 18th birthday?

At one time, the 16th birthday held some of 18’s clout, and its passage was commemorated with eligibility for a driver’s license. Now many states greatly limit 16- and 17-year-old drivers. Eighteen was long considered the moment when you were transformed into a sober adult who could maturely handle your liquor. Deaths and dismemberment from drunken teen drivers showed the folly of that notion. The private sector goes further, banning teens from renting cars and inflating early twenty-something’s rental and auto insurance rates. (On a more positive note, the new Affordable Care Act allows young adults to remain on their parents’ health plans until they are 26.)

Where did the mystical adult-defining properties of 18 come from? Three places, I think. For one, 18 is generally the age when young people leave their parents’ nests and go to college. But colleges have begun to re-think their role in loco parentis, placing increased restrictions on those behaviors many young adults would happily engage in if left to their own devices, like binge drinking and hazing.

Second, while you can enlist in the military at age 17 with your parents’ permission, the decision is all yours at 18—but with an extremely important caveat: You can be a soldier at 18, but not an officer. Society is happy to have teens as grunts, but not as leaders.

Finally, the youth movement of the 1960’s and opposition to the Vietnam War led to the 1971 adoption of the 26th amendment, setting the right to vote no higher than 18.

Those last two points are inextricably tied—those who might be cannon fodder should have the right to decide in part who sends them to war. But that says next to nothing about whether they are fully formed adults.

While 18-year-olds are certainly capable of handling many adult responsibilities, the evidence that young adults are not fully emotionally mature is growing. This graphic tells the story quite clearly. While intellectual ability approaches average adult levels around age 18, psychological maturity is well below adult levels until the mid-20s.

And evidence is increasing that housing juveniles in adult facilities is detrimental not just to their futures, which are limited by restrictions on where they can live, what jobs they can do, and who they can associate with. Treating juveniles as adults increases the number of crimes they commit as adults, making all of us less safe.

As we move toward a national consensus that youth under age 18 are too young to be treated as adults, we should broaden the discussion to include whether young adults are too immature to be subject to the adult criminal justice system.

Should we embrace what every parent knows: That there is a third period in the maturation process where people are no longer children, but not yet adults? A three-tiered justice system, including a system for 18 to 25 year-olds, could improve the futures of youth who have committed crimes and enhance public safety as well.

Follow John Roman on Twitter at @JohnKRoman.

Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute

Filed under: Adolescents and Youth, Crime and Justice, Delinquency and crime |Tags: , , , , ,

10 surprising ways to fight crime

Author: John Roman

| Posted: December 9th, 2013

Though they may run counter to conventional wisdom, these 10 research-backed policy ideas could reduce crime in the United States. Here’s how—and why.

1juvinilesImage from Flickr user circulating (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

1. Divert juveniles from the juvenile justice system. Talk of super-predators and the Knock-Out Gamereinforce stereotypes of marauding teenagers that need to be locked away for the good of society. But there’s no proof that prison reduces future offending; instead, it may harden them as criminals. Many states are successfully moving toward the Missouri Model, which focuses on rehabilitation in the community, andraising the age when juveniles are automatically processed in the adult system.

2respectresidentsImage from Flickr user Runs With Scissors (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

2. Respect residents of high-crime neighborhoodsStop and frisk and “broken windows” focus on suppressing crime in dangerous places. But by assuming anyone in a dangerous place is a potential criminal, these policies strain the police-community relationship and make it harder for police to gain trust and, ultimately, solve crimes. A better solution is for police to integrate themselves into neighborhoods and become part of the community.

3respectDefendentsImage from Flickr user  Beinecke Library (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

3. Respect defendants in courtJudges lecturing defendants at sentencing make everyone feel like justice is served, but it is actually counterproductive. Defendants who face judges who listen to them, understand their problems, and assist them into and through therapy are less likely to reoffend.


Image from Matt Johnson, Urban Institute

4. Respect convicted offenders. Getting tough on crime may have reduced crime, but it’s come at enormous costs fiscally—and to communities . It is cheaper and more effective to rehabilitate returning prisoners than to incarcerate them.


Image from Shutterstock

5. Take bullying seriously. Bullying used to be perceived as a natural part of growing up, a way to toughen kids up to face the harsh realities of adulthood. But being bullied leads to truancy and dropping out of school, which are associated with delinquency and a host of bad outcomes. Whole-school curriculums to combat bullying work and are creating a generation of better-adjusted kids (and are a vast improvement over zero-tolerance policies).


Photo from Flickr user ajft (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

6. Aggressively investigate burglaries. Traditionally, police in busy agencies do not investigate residential burglaries, preferring to save precious resources for more serious crimes. But it’s not as though criminals simply graduate from burglaries to more serious stuff—research shows that burglars, particularly those caught via DNA evidence, already have long track records of serious offending.

7collectImage from Flickr user col&tasha (CC BY 2.0) 

7. Collect DNA from everyone. Using DNA evidence to aid investigations has been shown to be cost-effective, and expanding databases will only increase that effectiveness. It also has the potential to create a more just system. For example, if you are concerned that minorities are disproportionately coming in contact with the criminal justice system, expanded DNA databases will increase the pool of potential suspects beyond minorities currently over-represented in the system.

8immigrationImage from Flickr user Saopaulo1 (CC BY 2.0) 

8. Encourage immigration. It is a popular narrative in virtually every culture around the world that immigrants are more crime-prone than natives. But research finds that it is not true. Places with clusters of immigrants tend to have crime rates well below what would be predicted based on their socioeconomic status.


Photo by Matt Johnson, Urban Institute

9. Encourage gentrification. Research finds that places that are integrated have less crime than places that are economically and racially segregated. And, when a crime-ridden place gentrifies, much of the crime does not follow the residents who leave. It simply disperses. That is because the crime was about an infected place, not about the residents who live there.

10violenceinterruptersImage from YouTube user TheIACP 

10. Provide tips to “violence interrupters.” Increasingly, cities are turning models like CureViolence, where civilians—often former gang members themselves—insert themselves into disputes following shootings to try to avoid retaliation. Police resist this model on the grounds that it may reduce the amount of information that flows into a police investigation and that interrupters, to keep their credibility, do not communicate to the police. But, in the long-term, it is likely more productive to prevent new shootings than solve old ones.

Each of these policies has a coherent evidence base to support it. I offer one additional idea that does not, though it does seem logical and adheres to standard economic reasoning.

11gunsImage from Flickr user Mathew Burpee (CC BY-NC 2.0) 

11. Offer tax credits for gun ownership. Research shows that legally purchased weapons (about 60 percent of all purchases) are much less likely to be used in street crimes than guns bought in secondary markets. Thus, a policy that rewards gun buyers for purchasing through a federally licensed dealer should shrink secondary markets over time, making it more difficult (and expensive) for criminals to acquire weapons.

Next week, I’ll discuss crime-fighting ideas that do follow conventional wisdom—but don’t work. Interested in specific programs that can fight crime? Read Nancy La Vigne’s excellent take here.

Filed under: Corrections, reentry, and community supervision, Courts and sentencing, Crime and justice statistics, Delinquency and crime, Economic development, Forensic science, Integration, Justice Policy Center, Policing and crime prevention, Victims of crime |Tags: , , ,