Prevention: Community Programs

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Community crime prevention programs were founded upon a simple idea: that private citizens can and should play a critical role in preventing crime in their communities. The concepts community and crime prevention have fluid interpretations. Consequently, the range of programs popularly or officially labeled community crime prevention has included a virtually limitless array of activities, including media anti-drug campaigns, silent observer programs, and neighborhood dispute resolution programs.

While no consensual definition of the community crime prevention program concept has emerged, criminal justice scholars tend to restrict its application to activities that include residents of a particular locality who participate in efforts to stop crimes before they occur in that locality. Generally excluded from this categorization are (1) programs that serve only known offender populations; (2) programs that are designed and implemented only by professionals (e.g., social workers and probation officers); and (3) programs that may involve community residents but are principally based in formal social institutions like juvenile courts or schools.

The history of community crime prevention

The predominant models of community crime prevention have changed considerably throughout history with respect to the customary roles played by community residents, the choices of criminogenic conditions to target, and the manner of interaction between civilian program participants and representatives of public entities. Accounts of the history of community crime prevention describe how these elements are shaped by interrelated developments in the local and national political economy and in inter-group relations (e.g., class and race relations) as well as perceptions of the crime problem and the effectiveness of particular citizen mobilization and crime prevention strategies.

The belief that citizens have a duty to curb deviant behaviorthe essence of community crime preventionis at least as old as recorded history. Formalized community crime prevention, however, appears to have started in England during the eighteenth century when playwright and novelist Henry Fielding mobilized a body of citizen householders for the purpose of addressing the root causes of crime and apprehending criminals.

The idea that law-abiding citizens could prevent crime in their communities through non-punitive means achieved popular resonance in the United States in the 1930s, owing in part to the work of the Chicago School of Sociology. These scholars cogently argued that the causes of crime reside largely in structural forces that operate on neighborhoods and families rather than in genetic dispositions. In part as a result of their work, urban researchers and policy makers showed a greater sensitivity to environmental factors that contributed to poor socialization of urban children such as ethnic heterogeneity, the strains of immigrant life, overcrowding, and a lack of structured activities for youth.

To address the perceived social disorganization and the lack of coordination among existing neighborhood agents of socialization in urban slums, some cities during the 1930s formed community commissions for crime prevention. For instance, citing the work of the Chicago School, the Crime Commission of New York State in 1930 called for the formation of neighborhood councils, that would consist of neighborhood service professionals and elites "whose concern would be the present and future needs of the neighborhood, based on fact-finding, and whose problem it would be to integrate all the forces in the neighborhood that are working for social welfare, into a harmonious program." (p. 16). The centrally coordinated, community-wide integration of programs based on scientific assessments forms the core of modern community crime prevention "partnership" schemes.

Chicago areas project

The coordination of existing community agencies was not ambitious enough for the likes of Chicago researcher Clifford Shaw. Shaw theorized that it was not social service personnel who play a crucial role in imparting conventional values to youth but rather youths' immediate and wider social circles found within their communities. Shaw believed that social programs can reduce delinquency in high delinquency areas only if they fully integrate the people and institutions that shape youths' lives on a daily basis, thereby strengthening the often strained social relationships between youth and adults.

Involving residents of high delinquency areas in crime prevention activities on a large scale was a daunting task. Shaw founded the Chicago Areas Project (CAP) with sociologist Ernest Burgess of the University of Chicago. To facilitate the recruitment of community members, the project, with the aid of government funds, hired local residents whose social network ties, personal investment, and knowledge of the community proved to be an asset to the recruitment process. These paid community leaders worked to organize more than forty community committees, which were composed of residents of the community. CAP granted these committees considerable autonomy in staffing decisions and in deciding the nature of their crime prevention activities. Delegating decision-making authority to community leaders was intended to increase their stake in the program and cultivate their capacity to form self-sustaining organizations.

From 1931 to 1944, CAP organizations launched recreation programs, deployed "detached workers" to counsel youth gangs, and sponsored limited educational/training programs for immigrants and others in need. While evaluations suggest that CAP had an ambiguous impact on delinquency and formed durable but not "self-sustaining" community organizations, it played a pivotal role in the history of community crime prevention programs. CAP established the feasibility of creating stable community organizations, even in areas with relatively high rates of poverty and heterogeneity. Additionally, it introduced the youth outreach worker approach that aims to blend service workers into the natural milieu of at-risk youth. Finally, CAP continues to offer a model to help bridge the disconnect between institutional agents of youth welfare and informal agents of socialization.

Political mobilization

The Chicago Area Project is a rare example of indigenous control over the design and implementation of sizable, though highly circumscribed, programs. Many grass-roots community organizations that succeeded CAPS, influenced in part by the confrontational tactics of organizer Saul Alinksy, recognized that social cohesion must be accompanied by economic and political resources to give communities a fighting chance against crime. As a result, more organizations adopted what Tim Hope calls vertical strategies, which focus on linkages between community life and decisions made at higher levels of power out-side the community.

The emphasis on vertical strategies was strongest in the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy's administration sought to tackle racism, poverty, and delinquency by launching Mobilization for Youth, an effort in fifteen cities designed to provide youth more opportunities through empowering disadvantaged groups to challenge the unjust distribution of resources in their communities. Although crime prevention was the explicit aim of Mobilization for Youth, its concern with attacking what Cloward and Ohlin labeled the "differential opportunity structure" in America extended far beyond a concern for youth crime. In the end, Mobilization for Youth was deemed a failure, because its narrow emphasis on political activity antagonized local governments and failed to garner sufficient grassroots support.

The perceived failure of government programs, along with mass social protest during the 1960s, helped spark what Adam Crawford calls a "crisis of legitimacy" among government agencies, whereby social service programs and criminal justice agencies were perceived as out-of-touch with the preferences of those they served and incapable of affecting social structure. Relatedly, the emphasis on social structure in criminology yielded some prominence to a conception of rational offenders responding to incentives in the physical environment and to an emphasis on the victim's role in crime and crime control. Community defense activities allowed increasingly fearful and punitive citizens to protect themselves and their property against opportunistic offenders and to "fight back" through such actions as citizen patrols and property marking.

Community defense approaches also carried some appeal for public officials. Sharing responsibilities with community groups not only met the 1970s demand for fiscal restraint, but it also helped cultivate an image of local government as responsive to public concerns and only partially to blame for alarming crime rates.

Not surprisingly, then, community defenseat times combined with citizen mobilization for more city servicesbecame the predominant paradigm of community crime prevention beginning in the 1970s. The federal government, for its part, sought to encourage the expansion of such programs by developing standards for citizen involvement set forth by the U.S. National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards in 1973, and by sponsoring training for community organizations and law enforcement agencies interested in launching such programs. The neighborhood watch model, which emphasizes collective vigilance over neighborhood space, became the most popular form of collective activity against crime, with 7 percent participation among adults in 1984. The estimated 18.3 million Americansapproximately 14 percent of whom are African Americanvolunteering in block watches and other neighborhood public safety programs in 1996 attests to its enduring popularity among diverse segments of Americans.

The trend toward public/private and inter-agency cooperation has spread to other crime prevention modalitiesparticularly delinquency prevention. During the 1990s the United States, Great Britain, and other nations experienced the spread of efforts to coordinate crime prevention efforts system-wide. Predicated on public health models of the development of high-risk behaviors, the community partnership approach views delinquency as the product of multiple risk and protective factors operating in a youth's social system. Coordinated partnerships strive to tailor the amount and type of services in a community to cost-effectively reduce and enhance, respectively, the multiple risk and protective factors assessed to be operating in a particular community.

The major federally initiated and funded partnership approaches, including Weed and Seed, the Comprehensive Communities Program, and Title V Community Prevention Grants Programall launched during the 1990schannel their funds through policy boards formed in various municipalities. Residents of particular neighborhoods and their leaders generally play a limited role in the coordinating bodies, often ceding authority to leaders of units of local government (e.g., police chief and school superintendent), and major social service organizations. On the other hand, members and leaders of community organizations may still assume important roles by serving as consultants in the assessment and planning process and helping mobilize support for and to implement community initiatives. Community-wide partnerships vary in the extent to which they support grassroots initiatives and in the direct control they exercise over these neighborhood organizations' use of the funds.

Evaluations of community crime prevention programs

Evaluators in the field of community crime prevention have met more success at describing whether community programs and initiatives have met their process or intermediate objectiveslike membership recruitment, consensus building, sustainability, and so onthan they have at demonstrating a causal impact of these programs on measures of public safety.

Process evaluations have revealed some of the factors that help launch and sustain participation in crime prevention initiatives. First, the involvement of extant multi-issue community organizations and of charismatic community leaders are strong determinants of program initiation, participation, and longevity. Activities initiated by and established within long-standing community organizations appear to outlast government-initiated programs, because these organizations can sustain the crime prevention network even as perceptions of the crime problems and funding and political support vacillate.

Instilling community cohesion is another important process aim of community crime prevention; some scholars even consider it the primary objective. While community organizations in general have clearly advanced this goal, scant statistical evidence supports the many anecdotal reports of a strong effect of community crime prevention on social interaction and mutual solidarity.

In addition to community-building, another process aim of community crime prevention is enhancing the political efficacy of a community. Through their activities, community members learn effective ways to act collectively, to cooperate with other organizations, and to strategically challenge policy proposals. Accordingly, a study by Grant, Lewis, and Rosenbaum observed an increase in civic participation following the institution of a large-scale block watch program in an area of Chicago and concluded that participation in crime prevention translated into greater political leverage for the community over "criminal justice, municipal, and even state institutions" (p. 381).

The outcomes of greatest interest to criminologists, however, are perceived and actual levels of crime and disorder, as well as fear of crime. Unfortunately, various characteristics of community crime prevention programs and the evaluation process have severely curtailed the frequency and quality of outcome-based assessments. Frequently cited obstacles to effective evaluation are the lack of available funds, of baseline and victimization data, of untreated equivalent communities for comparison, and of the required number of program sites needed to make reliable causal inferences. Insufficiently short follow-up periods and the reporting and recording biases of arrest and crime incident report data are additional impediments to assessment. Furthermore, the existence of so many multi-modality programs with flexible implementation plans impairs the ability of researchers to pinpoint the source of the apparent positive or negative effects.

At the risk of ignoring numerous striking counterexamples, the cumulative results of out-come-based evaluations can be summarized as follows:

  1. Strategies centering on community organization and political mobilization have evidenced no consistent impacts on crime measures, but some modest reductions in fear of crime.
  2. Programs integrating youth or gang out-reach workers fail to decrease crime and may even increase arrests, although Malcolm Klein demonstrated a decline in gang arrests during and immediately following a program that works with gang members as individuals.
  3. The best evidence, including one evaluation involving randomization, fails to find any long-term impact of neighborhood watch programs on crime, disorder, and fear of victimization. Programs that also include close police community collaboration and/or environmental modification components have yielded some encouraging results, however.
  4. While evaluations of comprehensive community programs of the 1990s are explicitly encouraged, disappointingly few outcomebased evaluations are pending.
  5. Programs that have produced favorable results on some indicators of delinquency are after school recreation programs, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and localized citizen-initiated community anti-drug efforts.

Problems and prospects

Inadequate and inconsistent evidence renders premature the frequent conclusion that most forms of community crime prevention programs are ineffective. Knowledge of this fact, however, does not prevent numerous scholars and researchers from proposing factors that impede crime prevention programs from attaining their goals. Most importantly, programs have been criticized for not addressing the structural correlates of crime such as poverty, unemployment, and housing segregation. While crime prevention programs that attempt to seriously challenge the power structure are largely unsuccessful, the prevailing models of community crime prevention that involve community/government agency partnerships have been criticized for actually reinforcing structures of inequality. Neighborhood self-policing initiatives may effectively organize citizens and clean up signs of disorder in very localized areas, but do little to increase the resources of the larger community and sometimes merely relocate the problems to other neighborhoods. Furthermore, crime watchoriented groups, when they are dominated by homeowners and landlords, often develop an "us versus them" mentality. These groups may reduce crime and disorder at the expense of excluding less privileged members from the organization and helping remove those they define as threats (e.g., gang members and the homeless) from the communitywhich can manifest and exacerbate race and class tensions.

Both community/police partnership and larger comprehensive partnership approaches have also been criticized for subverting the agendas of community groups. Whether community organizations initiate the partnerships or they are lured into partnerships by the promise of greater resources and services, they may find themselves with little or no power over politically-driven resource allocation and programming decisions and/or saddled with various administrative hassles. This, along with issues over turf, may explain why the program sites of the Comprehensive Communities Program report difficulty in eliciting and maintaining the support of community residentssupport that Shaw and others have deemed essential to the effectiveness of interventions. Communities face a trade off between the efficient and research-based delivery of more needed resources into their communities and their power to respond collectively and autonomously to their self-defined needs, based on their own democratic processes.

The immediate future looks bright for federally funded large-scale community crime prevention. For instance, congressional allocations to Title V Community Crime Prevention doubled at the end of the 1990s. Thus many programs that work toward a community crime prevention vision of strong urban communitiesthrough mediating conflicts within them, giving residents a greater voice within the context of collaboration, and providing opportunities for at-risk youthwill continue to balance the popular community defense approaches. At the same time, exclusionary trends in the social and political landscape, including gentrification, increased punitive criminal justice intervention, social welfare retrenchment, and pervasive fear and distrust, have led to calls for investment in alternative programsfashioned after programs in Australia and elsewherethat include excluded groups in integrative community actions that reduce fear as well as crime. Thus even in the face of steady declines in crime, the need for community crime prevention programs may continue to grow.

Paul J. Hirschfield

See also Crime Causation: Sociological Theories; Dispute Resolution Programs; Ecology of Crime; Fear of Crime.


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