• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 01st February, 2011

Can the meanest streets hide communities that care?

The success of the Communities that Care “operating system” in a series of US randomized controlled trials may disguise the difficulty of forming effective community coalitions in severely deprived neighborhoods, say University of Cincinnati researchers.In their commentary on findings published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, criminologists Francis Cullen and Cheryl Jonson commend the developmental perspective of CtC, which takes into account the factors that predict children’s pathways into delinquency and drug and alcohol abuse. They say the evaluation also demonstrates that CtC can be a conduit for organizing and delivering effective interventions in a scientific and systematic way at the community level. But, despite there being public support as well as numerous proven, cost-effective programs for them to draw upon, systems like CtC face several formidable challenges. Cullen and Jonson argue that, unlike the field of medicine, there are no ready-made institutional structures available to prevention science for disseminating knowledge and providing training. Regional training centers that could equip policy makers and practitioners with the skills to avoid “correctional quackery” and to implement interventions effectively remain a Utopian fantasy. As things stand, David Hawkins and Richard Catalano’s Social Development Research Group strategy has only been proven to work in non-minority communities where young people have a low level of involvement in crime. How it would fare in locations where ethnic diversity, crime and poverty are more pronounced and there is no framework for collective efficacy to solve social problems, remains to be seen. Implementation continues to pose the greatest difficulty in just those areas where children at the highest risk are living.Persuading the politicians to take up systems like CtC is another formidable obstacle. “In a highly politicized environment in which elected officials try to trump one another regarding who can be tougher on crime, efforts at prevention and treatment are being discredited as bleeding heart liberalism,” the criminologists lament.Hard evidence is what is needed. In order to make a change to the current ineffective policies of punishment over treatment, prevention initiatives must categorically prove that they reduce crime and outperform the alternatives - namely prison. Cullen and Jonson nevertheless acknowledge CtC’s potential for effectively reducing crime. By paying close attention to developmental evidence over the life course, it is likely to make an impressive impact, they say. They explain that for many years criminologists’ understanding of where and when to intervene with young people was obscured by the “age-crime curve”. “When crime and substance abuse are mapped, they describe a bell curve increasing in volume during the teenage years.” There was period when efforts to design and test intervention focused on these more wayward years. However, recent longitudinal studies have shown that two underlying criminal pathways are disguised by the general population trends. The majority of children experience an unremarkable childhood and a more troublesome adolescence, before returning to the straight and narrow as adults. But a smaller group of children buck the trend, demonstrating poor behavior throughout childhood and continuing along this path into adult criminal careers. Most likely to become persistent serious offenders, their ranks are “hidden” among the majority in the age-crime curve. This deconstruction of the age-crime curve prompts a rethink on crime-reduction strategies, favoring early intervention in relation to the risk factors associated with later criminality, rather than therapy for those already acting out. "From a public health perspective," say Cullen and Jonson, "the wisdom of tracing an illness to its earliest roots is typically taken for granted." Many of the interventions included in the CtC menu are built on this idea. Cullen F and Jonson C (2009), “Understanding the Importance of Communities that Care,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 163, 9, pp 866-868• See also Maine people in normal hats rescue kids from drugs and Coalition progress exceeds Washington's expectations

Back to Archives