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Quality of Life Archive
| Posted: November 26th, 2013
Interviewer: “What happens after a fight [in Altgeld Gardens]?”
David (age 16): “You keep going, you just keep pushing.”
Stacie (mother of teenagers in Altgeld Gardens): “There was so much violence around here and most of the moms have teenagers.… [A few mothers] started a club called Altgeld Mothers Against Violence, and so few people showed up. We put fliers everywhere, and no one came.… I don’t know if they’re afraid. If we stop the violence now and get the kids in order, then we won’t have to do something when your kids get shot.”
Chronic violence, in combination with socioeconomic and racial inequality, has devastating impacts on youth and families: victimization, isolation, poor mental health, hopelessness, and, in some instances, forced participation in gangs to ensure survival. In a previous post, I petitioned policymakers to face these challenges head-on and invest in programs and mental health services in urban communities.
The Housing Opportunity and Services Together (HOST) Demonstration does just that. It provides troubled families in four public and mixed-income housing developments with case management, mental health services, and youth programming to improve individuals’ lives and decrease levels of community violence and disorder. However, our conversations and surveys with families in the Chicago HOST site, Altgeld Gardens, reveal a lack of trust between neighbors and a lack of community action that increases violence and keeps families from using services to reach their individual goals.
When trying to understand why communities like Altgeld Gardens have higher levels of violence, we often point to neighborhood poverty, the quality of local services, and social networks. But another factor may be more important. A neighborhood’s cohesiveness and trust, or what Robert Sampson calls collective efficacy, encourages residents faced with persistent violence to take action and intervene for the common good. When it’s missing, many, like 16-year-old David and other Altgeld residents “just keep pushing” as violence consumes their neighborhood.
Altgeld’s community dissension also precludes families’ progress. Only a quarter of Altgeld parents believe their neighbors can be trusted—43 percent fewer than parents in the average Chicago neighborhood. This clearly broken community trust, according to case managers, keeps adults from attending urgently needed group classes or activities such as counseling, health services, and GED classes.
Altgeld youth don’t feel safe and protected enough to leave their homes and attend HOST’s after-school programs and youth groups because of the potential for bullying. “Too many people [shoot] at each other,” one teen said. And unlike youth in other communities, children here don’t see their neighbors as a protective factor against this potential victimization. Thirty-nine percent say neighbors don’t look out for each other, compared with 29 percent nationally.
In Chicago, HOST attempts to gradually build Altgeld residents’ mutual trust and defense mechanisms against violence by nurturing a sense of community among residents who are making progress together. Case managers and concerned parents have joined together to create a “human bus” that escorts young people to HOST events, establishing a sense of community protection. Service providers also host quarterly community-wide parties to celebrate youth achievements, bring families out of isolation, and develop a positive neighborhood culture. We hope these small efforts will eventually help galvanize community action against violence.
Photo illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute; Source image from Flickr user cpentecost (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: HOST, neighborhood, poverty, trust, Urban Institute, violence Add a Comment »
| Posted: November 22nd, 2013
It sounds like a movie scene set in the future: a criminal desperate for a gun doesn’t have to go far to get one. Rather than stealing a weapon or buying one on the black market, he goes to his computer and hits “print.” One by one, the pieces of a gun take shape. These he quickly assembles and, in the next moment, he’s on the street, armed and dangerous.
If this sounds like dystopian fiction, you’ve missed the news cycle of the past week where commentators and policymakers have been sounding off about the danger of guns made with 3D printing technology. Some have called them a “boon for criminals,” while others, policymakers included, have suggested that keeping these weapons “off the streets” should be a key priority.
First came the Liberator: a low-power, single-shot, mostly plastic weapon created on a $1,700 3D printer with $25 in materials. The Liberator’s record is mixed: some have successfully fired nine rounds, others have misfired or even exploded. On the heels of the Liberator came a full-metal printed gun. Modeled on the famous 1911 pistol, it fired 600 large-caliber rounds. These weapons have media and federal authorities concerned that obtaining firearms may soon be a simple process.
But this oversells the danger posed by 3D guns. To understand why, we have to understand the average criminal. While every Hollywood criminal may be a seasoned gunman, real criminals often have no idea how to operate a firearm. Even criminals with guns often don’t know how to load a weapon or select the proper ammunition. This will make 3D guns, which must be assembled and loaded after being printed, even more challenging to use than normal guns.
And before using a 3D weapon, criminals will have to face an even bigger challenge: finding one. Criminals commonly get their weapons through theft, corrupt firearm retailers, and black markets; 3D weapons are likely to impact none of these channels.
- Annual gun theft estimates range from approximately 200,000 to more than half a million, from a national stock of more than 310 million weapons. Against this existing store, the limited number of 3D weapons will not significantly increase opportunities for theft, especially compared with the steady stream of conventionally made arms rolling off production lines.
- Corrupt firearms dealers may supply criminals, though the scope of this problem is unclear. Some research suggests that dealers are only minor actors in the criminal weapons supply, while other reports suggest that they may divert a significant number of weapons to criminals. Either way, with access to a low-cost supply of conventional weapons, there is little need for dealers to offer 3D guns, either through pre-sale diversion or through exploitation of the laxer sales standards at gun shows.
Operating as an independent black-market dealer is difficult: selling $25 Liberators for $50, a 100 percent markup, would require 68 sales just to break even on the cost of the printer. The average number of sales a black-market broker makes in a Chicago neighborhood? Sixteen. Moreover, dealing in bulk increases the risk of police detection as there must be more sales, each of which could be to a police informant. The 3D gun is simply not suited to the needs of illegal markets, and until that changes, don’t expect to see them on the black market.
None of this is to say that 3D guns don’t pose real homeland security dangers. For terrorists, the limited tactical capabilities of 3D weapons, especially plastic ones, may be less important than their ability to create fear and uncertainty, infiltrate secure locations, or force the development of expensive new security protocols. A “click, print, and fire” crime wave, however, will likely remain science fiction for a very long time.
Gun illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: guns, print guns, printing, Urban Institute, violence 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 20th, 2013
This morning the US Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) is holding a hearing called “Dying Young: Why Your Social and Economic Status May Be a Death Sentence in America.” Is there much evidence for this provocative and alarming title? Sadly, the answer is a decisive “yes.”
Earlier this year, I wrote about a study I recently directed for the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine that documented a large and growing US “health disadvantage” relative to other high-income countries. This disadvantage shows up in higher rates of disease and injury from birth to age 75 for men and women, rich and poor, across all races and ethnicities. Study after study confirms that the health of Americans is suffering dramatically and even slipping, and that real solutions to this situation lie far outside the health care system and the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as important as these are.
The real drivers of health in modern America are the non-medical or social determinants of health. These are things such as education, income, and neighborhood conditions that shape so many of our individual choices and behaviors—including behaviors such as smoking, diet, exercise, and driving—but also broader local, state, and national policies that shape our social and economic circumstances in very powerful and fundamental ways.
Unfortunately, for many of these social determinants, the United States is doing very poorly. Recent work at the Urban Institute shows this through our work on long-term unemployment, widening wealth inequality, and insecurity in children’s lives. Even social mobility, a cherished American ideal, is increasingly limited.
Rather than wait for breakthroughs in biomedical research, we can start attending to the social determinants of health through sound social and economic policies. Many other countries are doing this as part of their “health in all policies” approaches, and today’s HELP committee hearing suggests that the United States may finally be heading in this direction too.
In the months ahead, Urban Institute researchers and affiliated scholars will be contributing to this knowledge base and highlighting public policy implicitions for the social determinants of health.
Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: health, health care, U.S., Urban Institute 1 Comment »
Linda J. Blumberg
| Posted: November 15th, 2013
Until full implementation of health reform, insurers can consider the health and age of a small firm’s employees before deciding what to charge in premiums. Based on their expected health care costs, younger and healthier firms often pay less than older and less healthy firms.
A key provision of the ACA is to remove this ability of insurers to price-discriminate, instead requiring cost and risk sharing across firms in the small-group market. This change will produce some winners and losers—in healthy years firms may pay somewhat more while in less healthy years firms will save.
After the ACA is fully implemented in 2014, in their healthier years, small firms will have an increased incentive to leave the small-group insurance pools and join the now very small group of small self-insuring firms. Self-insurance, which is excluded from many of the ACA’s market reforms, enables firms to cover their own employees’ health costs while purchasing “stop-loss” coverage to protect themselves from catastrophically expensive claims.
As I testified to the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, an increase in the number of small firms choosing to self-insure poses two serious risks.
First, self-insurance can put small firms in financially vulnerable positions. Stop-loss coverage is not regulated like insurance, meaning that—among other limitations—policies can be denied outright to less healthy firms, and the policies are not required to cover specific benefits. Further, stop-loss policies may not pay claims until after the first quarter of the following year, leaving small, financially vulnerable firms on the hook for big initial payouts. What’s more, firms may be left entirely liable for very large claims incurred in a year covered by a stop-loss policy but filed in the next year, after that policy ended.
The second serious risk is that a growth in the number of self-insuring firms could remove many young, healthy people from the small-business group insurance pool. A primary goal of the ACA is to bring more people into a unified risk pool, lowering overall average risk, making premiums more stable and predictable, and lowering premiums and increasing access to coverage for less healthy groups. The ACA’s exclusion of self-insured plans from many of its market reforms could incentivize healthy small groups to move out of fully insured products, seriously curtailing that intended effect, and potentially raising the health care costs of millions of people.
In my testimony, I offered lawmakers several recommendations to address these two risks.
First, policymakers could set the attachment point (i.e., the deductible) for stop-loss coverage at a minimum of $60,000 per insured individual, the amount recommended recently by an actuarial subgroup of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). Analysis with the Urban Institute’s sophisticated microsimulation model, HIPSM, suggests that this high threshold would expose small employers to significant financial risk and effectively dissuade the vast majority from self-insuring.
The analysis also suggests that if the NAIC parameters were implemented in a uniform manner nationally, compared with a scenario with no stop-loss regulations, the fully insured small-group insurance market would be about 1.5 times as large, and premiums in that market would be 20-25 percent lower.
Alternatively, the federal government could prohibit the sale of stop-loss insurance to small employers (as some states already do) or require its sale to small employers be regulated by small-group rules.
At a very minimum, the federal government can develop and implement an effective plan for closely monitoring increases in small firm self-insurance nationally and by state. Given the magnitude of other ACA implementation tasks and their associated time pressures, states are not inclined to do so on their own. That means that, in the absence of a concerted federal effort, states will be unprepared to intervene as warning signs increase, which is when major market disruptions could more easily be avoided.
Cake shop photo from Shutterstock
Filed under: Health Care |Tags: ACA, health, insurance, Obamacare, reform, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
Nancy La Vigne
| Posted: November 13th, 2013
With holiday hiring upon us, job prospects for the hard to employ are looking up – if only on a temporary basis. But for the 65 million Americans with criminal records, even a temporary job is often out of reach.
That’s why the Target Corporation’s removal of criminal history questions from its employment applications is such promising news. While many state and local governments have decided to “ban the box” on job applications asking applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, Target represents one of the most prominent companies to do so.
The fact that the big box store offers entry-level jobs makes the decision even more meaningful for the 650,000 prisoners released each year in search of gainful employment.
Our research shows that former prisoners with jobs are less likely to go back to prison than those who remain jobless. But by checking a box on a job application, the odds are good that their application will end up in the trash bin.
Make no mistake: employers who choose to ban the box are not foregoing criminal background checks altogether. The vast majority of employers conduct background checks on prospective employees as a matter of course.
The problem with the box is that is doesn’t let applicants explain what their crimes were, how long ago they were committed, and what they may have learned from their incarceration experience. Removing the box allows qualified applicants to advance to the interview stage, rather than be rejected outright.
With any luck, Target’s decision, no doubt prompted by legislation to be enacted in 2014 in its home state of Minnesota, will lead others to follow suit. In the meantime, much can be done to debunk employment myths about former prisoners.
One is that former prisoners turn down jobs they think are “beneath” them. Our research indicates that over two-thirds of those who found employment – primarily in food service, sanitation, and construction– are highly satisfied with their jobs, enjoy their work, get along well with their coworkers, and feel their jobs will lead to better opportunities.
Given the opportunity, the formerly incarcerated can be productive workers, holding jobs that citizens without records might not want. Such opportunities would benefit former prisoners and their families, and would help contain costly prison population growth while increasing public safety.
Target image from Flickr user Fan of Retail http://www.flickr.com/photos/fanofretail/
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: crime, employment, jobs, recidivism, Urban Institute 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 8th, 2013
Facebook’s decision to launch a cyber-bullying prevention hub will let teens report to an adult when they feel bullied on the site. Social networking sites and other technology like texting give bullies many tools to harass and abuse their victims. Worse, they enable bullying at any time of the day or night, even if the victim and bully are not physically together.
As my colleagues and I discovered in a study we released earlier this fall on cyber dating abuse and bullying, one in six youth reported being victims of cyber bullying in the prior year, and more than one in three reported being victims of physical and/or psychological bullying. Although reports of traditional bullying victimization continue to outnumber those of cyber bullying, as more and more youth gain access to new technology, high-speed Internet, and social networking websites, they may face an increased risk of cyber bullying.
We found that girls were twice as likely as boys to report cyber bullying, and youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender reported the highest rate of cyber bulling.
About one out of six bullying victims sought help, with half as many boys as girls seeking help. These youth are most likely to go to their parents and friends, though more than a third also turned to school counselors and teachers. Adults play an important role as a first responder to address and ultimately rectify any bullying that their child/student might be experiencing.
Facebook’s cyber bullying prevention hub is a great first step to addressing cyber bullying occurring on social networking sites. But more can be done. (Full disclosure: Marne Levine, Facebook's vice president for global public policy, serves on Urban Institute's Board of Trustees.) As more schools equip students with laptops and tablets, educators will need to train youth on how to use technology to block screen names, apply filters to certain websites, and take other protective measures to protect themselves from bullies and perpetrators of cyber dating abuse.
Additionally, while our study focused on how technology makes youth vulnerable to victimization and abuse, such technology may also be an opportunity for prevention and intervention efforts around bullying issues. Social networking sites can be used as a platform for public health prevention messages by spreading awareness about cyber bullying, ways to get help, and ways to prevent it. Technology also can be used to report incidences of teen dating violence and bullying—whether directly by the victim, a bystander, or a peer. For example, bystanders and peers could text eyewitness reports anonymously to school officials, similar to how texts can be sent to police anonymously whenever someone witnesses a crime.
Facebook is the first social networking website to take a proactive step in addressing cyber-bullying, and will hopefully serve as a positive example for other social networking websites to address what is becoming an all-too-common form of abuse and harassment.
Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute. Source images from Shutterstock
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: bullying, facebook, internet, online, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
Nancy La Vigne Sam Taxy
| Posted: November 6th, 2013
Yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) decided to allow female prisoners who hail from the region surrounding the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution to remain at the facility, where a new prison will be built to house the growing population. The decision is being heralded as a welcome reversal—and rightly so. Our analysis shows that 41 percent of women housed in Danbury—a location familiar to fans of Piper Kerman’s memoir and the popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black—live in Connecticut or nearby northeastern states from Pennsylvania through Maine.
Why does proximity to home matter? Distance from prison is the greatest barrier to maintaining contact with family and loved ones during incarceration.
Keeping in touch with family is a critical component of successful reentry. Our research has found that families are an important influence on the reentry process, with higher levels of family support linked to higher employment rates and reduced recidivism following release.
But the positive role that families can play is dependent on the degree of contact they have with their incarcerated loved ones. In-prison contact with family members leads to closer family relationships following release. Such contact allows parents to maintain connections with their children, which in turn encourages them to keep their lives on track upon release. This could yield major benefits, as the research shows exiting prisoners with strong, positive relationships with their children tend to be legally employed for longer periods than those who have weaker ties to their kids. The decision to keep more women housed in Danbury increases the odds that they can enjoy visits from family and remain engaged in their children’s lives.
But it is still worth examining why the BOP was considering a policy that runs so contrary to evidence-based practice. This is a direct result of dangerous overcrowding in federal prisons and the increasing cost of maintaining a growing prison population. Currently, high-security prisons are operating at over 50 percent of their rated capacity, putting correctional officers and prisoners alike at increased risk of violence and restricting the ability to offer much needed programs and treatment to support successful reentry.
At the same time, there’s not enough money in government coffers to build the prisons required to meaningfully reduce overcrowding. Increasing BOP budgets have already crowded out other federal spending priorities, compromising public safety in the process.
Our new report, Stemming the Tide, shows that it will take major policy changes to reduce federal prison overcrowding and forego the need to build more prisons. The BOP budget is already consuming an increasing share of Department of Justice resources at great expense to other important safety priorities.
The decision to build a new prison for women in response to the Danbury controversy is addressing the symptoms, not the underlying causes of the problem: decades of lengthy sentences for drug offenders, even those who are non-violent or do not use weapons. Indeed, 85 percent of the women housed at the Danbury facility do not have a violent or weapons-related most serious offense, and 57 percent are drug offenders.
So while our research supports keeping local women housed at Danbury, it also suggests that a longer term solution to the problem is to rethink what got these women and many other low-level drug offenders there to begin with. Reducing mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing caps and increasing access to programming and early release credits for participating in them would go a long way toward addressing the problem. These strategies can reduce overcrowding and keep women out of prison altogether, allowing them to serve out their sentences close to home and family.
Statistics come from Urban Institute analysis of Fiscal Year 2011 Bureau of Prisons data.
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: Danbury, FCI, Orange is the New Black, prison, Urban Institute 1 Comment »
| Posted: November 5th, 2013
Over the past three decades, the federal prison population has grown dramatically. In 1980, fewer than 25,000 Americans were incarcerated. Today, that number has increased to 219,000, due to more—and longer—prison sentences for those who break federal laws, particularly drug offenders.
This growth is unsustainable. For one, managing a prison population of that size is costly. The federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) system’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 is $6.9 billion, which would consume more than a quarter of the Department of Justice’s entire budget. Assuming no meaningful changes in policy, that share will be close to a third in a few short years. This continued funding of BOP will come at the expense of other pressing public safety activities.
Second, overcrowded federal prisons are dangerous, posing safety risks for staff and prisoners alike. And limited space means fewer places to offer much-needed educational and drug treatment programs that are crucial to prevent reoffending. This isn’t just a money issue, it’s a public safety issue.
So what can we do to tackle this expensive problem and reduce the flow of prisoners? Today, the Urban Institute released “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System.” In it, we review a number of options for cost-cutting reform to slow future growth and ease current overcrowding, including many that correspond to bipartisan legislative proposals. The bottom line? No one measure alone will do the trick; success will require a combination of both sentencing and early release policy changes.
- According to the research, lengthy drug sentences have been the major driver of the increase in the federal prison population. The single biggest way to make a dent in the prison population is to lower mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
- Cutting mandatory minimums in half could save almost $2.5 billion in 10 years. This measure alone would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades.
- Thanks to the “Safety Valve,” mandatory minimums aren’t always totally mandatory. Judges have the option to exempt certain drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentences if the offender has a minor (or nonexistent) criminal history. If a new Safety Valve were available to all offenders facing mandatory minimums, it could save $835 million over 10 years, while stabilizing dangerous overcrowding.
- Most federal prisoners currently serve more than 85 percent of their prison sentences. Lowering the minimum amount of time served to 75 percent could save $1 billion over 10 years.
- Right now, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which increases the quantity of crack cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, only applies to cases brought to court after its enactment. But if it were retroactive, about 3,000 prisoners would be eligible for immediate release.
- Most state prisoners have more options to reduce their sentences for good conduct and participation in activities or programs—and early release has not significantly affected their likelihood of committing crimes once they’re out of prison. Several proposals would grant additional earned time to federal prisoners, varying by programmatic requirements, eligibility, and the extent of the credit; for example, providing credits for intensive programming could save $45 million. Granting earned time for a broader set of programs could save $224 million, while putting low-risk prisoners who complete programming onto home confinement could save up to $112 million depending on contracting conditions.
Will any of these strategies completely fix all of the problems with federal prisons? In short, no – but the right mix of reforms could save money, substantially alleviate overcrowding, and improve the programs that keep prisoners from re-offending.
Filed under: Government, Quality of Life |Tags: crime, federal corrections, overcrowding, prisons, safety, Urban Institute 4 Comments »
| Posted: November 1st, 2013
On the same day as the Navy Yard mass killing, new FBI data showed that the violent crime rate declined in 2012 for the sixth year in a row.
Most Americans wouldn't believe it. Gallup has asked Americans in five out of the last six years whether they thought there was more crime in their area than the prior year. Each year, less than a third of respondents say that crime is going down. The sad juxtaposition of the mass murder and the release of crime data makes clear why there is such a disconnect, but the perception that America is getting more dangerous is not supported by the facts.
Here are 10 other popular crime myths and the true story behind them:
Myth #1: Crime is getting worse, if not in your neighborhood then certainly in the "bad parts" of town, which are much more dangerous than when you were a kid.
Fact: If you are under 40, on average you are safer now than you have ever been.
Myth #2: Suburbs are safer than cities.
Fact: True, on average, but the trend is better for cities than suburbs. At the peak of the crime wave in 1991, there were 138 homicides in Prince George's County and 479 in Washington, D.C. Last year, there were 82 homicides in PG (down 40 percent) and 82 in D.C. (down almost 75 percent).
Myth #3: Criminal investigators have enormous data systems at their fingertips that track virtually everything about all of us.
Fact: Police do have access to lots of data, but typically use it to find a known suspect rather than identify an unknown suspect.
Myth #4: Forensic examiners (CSIs) investigate crimes, carry weapons, and can process complex crimes in minutes.
Fact: The typical piece of DNA collected from a crime scene takes months to process (if it is at all) and the civilian processing it is not aware of the facts of the crime.
Myth #5: Most crimes are solved by fingerprints and DNA.
Fact: Less than 1 percent of all serious crimes are solved by DNA, and fingerprints do only slightly better.
Myth #6: Fingerprints can definitively match a person to a crime scene.
Fact: Fingerprint matches are entirely subjective and we have no idea whether the cliché that all fingerprints are unique is actually true.
Myth #7: There is an epidemic of children being kidnapped from their homes in the dead of night.
Fact: The FBI estimates that in 2008 a total of 115 children were kidnapped by strangers. A child is more than five times more likely to drown than be kidnapped.
Myth #8: There are two typical types of offenders:
- One is the brilliant loner psychopath who commits serial crimes and can't be caught without the aid of large task forces, luck, and equally brilliant loner detectives.
- Fact: Most criminals are far less educated, poorer, and sicker than the average American.
- Type two is the ruthless, soulless gang-banger who can only be contained (but never defeated) by armies of police.
- Fact: Gang members are typically teenagers, generally in a gang for about a yearbefore voluntarily leaving, and commit as many crimes against their fellow gang members as others.
Myth #9: Serial killers account for many murder victims.
Fact: Out of almost 15,000 homicides in 2010, perhaps 1 percent were victims of a serial killer, while four times as many were victims of infanticide.
Myth #10: There are a lot of adolescent predators on the loose.
Fact: At any given time, there are very few juveniles whose behavior has warranted a placement in secure confinement. In New York City, on any given day there are only about 250 youth in secure confinement.
[Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute. Crime scene photo from Shutterstock.]
Filed under: Crime |Tags: crime, crime facts, crime in the united states, crime myths, john roman, justice, justice policy, justice policy center, Urban Institute, violence 2 Comments »