V. Implications for Crime Prevention
Rates of recidivism (being rearrested after being released from prison, probation, or parole) in the United States and other countries are extremely high, often hovering around 70% to 80%. Criminals who are released from prison, as well as newly released probationers and parolees, are all at very high risk for committing another crime in the near future. This holds true even among offenders who complete intervention modalities, such as drug and alcohol abuse programs. Part of the explanation for why the United States is not very good at reducing crime is that intervention programs focus almost exclusively on adolescents and adults and ignore children. As this research paper has discussed, this is a serious oversight, because the roots of violence begin to take hold early in life, and early-life antisocial behaviors remain relatively stable over time. Thus, it would seem logical to conclude that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it from ever surfacing. This is exactly what the research tends to show. Although some programs that focus on adolescents and adults have been found to be successful at reducing recidivism, the overwhelming majority of such programs have dismal success rates—that is, recidivism rates are extremely high. There is some good news: Programs that focus on the critical time periods of childhood and infancy have been shown to be extremely successful at preventing crime.
To understand how it is possible to intervene in the lives of young children to reduce offending behaviors later in life, it is first necessary to recognize that not all children are equally likely to become habitual offenders. Career criminals, for instance, disproportionately come from impoverished, urban neighborhoods, from single families, and from families in which one or both parents have been arrested previously. A number of other factors have also been found to relate to serious, violent offenders, but the key point is that these factors can be used to identify families who are at risk for producing career criminals. This is precisely the information that early intervention programs use to seek out children who are at risk for future offending behaviors.
Perhaps the most well-known and most successful early intervention program is David Olds’s (2007) nurse–family partnership (NFP). The NFP identifies mothers who are pregnant with their firstborn child and who are also from low-socioeconomic classes (typically, they are unwed adolescents). Although the original aim of the NFP was to reduce abuse, neglect, and negative birth outcomes, emphasis also has been placed on reducing antisocial behaviors among these children. This latter goal is an especially daunting task given that the NFP focuses on families that are at elevated risk for producing criminals.
Once the women agree to participate in the NFP, they immediately have a meeting with a nurse; this meeting occurs while the women are pregnant. There typically are approximately six to nine nurse visits while the women are pregnant. These nurse visits are designed to accomplish three goals. First, they are concerned with improving the outcomes of pregnancy by helping mothers improve their prenatal health. This entails educating women about the harms associated with drinking, smoking, and using drugs. Improvements in nutrition also are discussed. Note that this part of the NFP is consistent with Moffitt’s (1993) explanation of LCP offenders because it targets known risk factors that interfere with healthy brain development and that are linked to neuropsychological deficits. Second, nurses attempt to improve the child’s health and development by helping mothers learn about competent care. This part of the program focuses on parental socialization, such as reducing abuse and maltreatment, and increasing effective parenting tactics. Note how this part of the NFP is in line with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory on the development of self-control, and it is also consistent with Moffitt’s explanation of LCP offenders. Third, the NFP attempts to help mothers after their children are born by promoting smart choices about education and employment. Nurse visitations continue to occur throughout childhood to promote positive outcomes.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the NFP, Olds (2007) used random assignment, whereby families were randomly assigned either to the NFP or to some other type of programs. To say that the results showed that NFP is effective would be a gross understatement. Compared with children who were placed into another type of program, NFP children accrued 61% fewer arrests, they had 72% fewer convictions, and they spent 98% fewer days in jail. These are truly remarkable gains, especially given that the NFP focuses on infancy and childhood and yet the effects are visible decades into the future. Contrast this with the fact that programs that focus on adolescents and adults rarely achieve such marked reductions in crime. Other early intervention programs, such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool Programs, have also been found to be very effective at reducing and preventing antisocial behaviors in the future (Schweinhart, 2007). The common theme that cuts across most effective intervention programs is that they are established very early in the life course and the earlier the intervention is implemented, the better the results.