• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 02nd February, 2012

Contagion: nothing spreads like crime

As any parent of a teenager knows, the peers their child hangs out with have a major influence on what their child gets into, and certain neighborhoods make child-rearing harder than others. Now research suggests that living in a neighborhood that has a lot of repeat offenders not only increases the chances that teenage boys who have committed a crime will re-offend, it can also act to “specialize” youth into specific types of crime. The effect is startling—for every 10% increase in drug re-offending in the youth’s vicinity, the likelihood that the youth will also re-offend with a drug offense almost doubled.Researchers at Temple University, Philadelphia, examined how “peer contagion” – the influence on juveniles of other juveniles exhibiting deviant behavior – is related to repeat offending. They used data on 7166 male juvenile offenders who had been sent to community-based programs by the Family Court of Philadelphia. The researchers, Jeremy Mennis and Philip Harris, looked at rates of repeat offending of these teenage boys for three types of crime – property crimes, offenses against persons and drug offenses – six months after the boys completed the community-based programs. They compared the re-offending rates of the individuals in their sample to the general juvenile re-offending rates within a one-kilometer radius from the home address of the youth. The findings confirmed their suspicions. Geographical location did have an effect on the likelihood of re-offending – and moreover, this pattern was offense specific. Teenage boys living in the vicinity of high drug crime were more likely to repeat offend in terms of drug offenses, while youth living in a community with high incidence of property crime tended to reoffend with property crimes, and youth living in a neighborhood with a high rate of offenses against persons were more likely to re-offend in this type of crime. Involvement in drug crime was particularly heavily affected by neighborhood. The findings, especially in terms of drug crime, suggest “a relatively organized neighborhood structure that supports involvement in this type of delinquency,” note Mennis and Harris.Further, Mennis and Harris found that certain crimes were more prevalent among certain ethnic groups, which may result from the spatial segregation of ethnic groups in urban neighborhoods. In the Philadelphia neighborhoods, Hispanics were more likely to commit drug crimes, while whites were more likely to commit property crimes. To a large extent, spatial concentration of ethnic minorities in certain neighborhoods may explain this ethnicity effect. The authors found that Philadelphia neighborhoods with high concentrations of Hispanics were often neighborhoods that had high drug re-offending. In other words, it was living in a highly segregated, impoverished minority neighborhood with high drug crime recidivism, rather than being Hispanic, that increased the likelihood of repeating a drug offense. This is supported by the fact that high concentrations of drug offense re-offending also occurred in some African American neighborhoods.While this study focused on neighborhoods, the authors pointed out that spatial contagion, that is, the negative impact of being in close proximity to other juveniles who exhibit criminal behavior, can also take place in a school, an institution, or a treatment program. As a result, treatment programs may create harm by creating groups of exclusively delinquent youths. More generally, it is necessary for treatment programs to consider wider community influences when designing effective intervention, since “all programs must compete with neighborhood forces to which their clients are exposed.” The findings suggest that interventions need to find ways to tackle the community-level influence of gangs and delinquent peers in order to reduce the spread of crime. But the research also suggests that prevention programs alone are not the full answer to the problem. “Bad” neighborhoods are a combination of a lack of employment opportunities, poor housing, poorly performing schools, and concentrated disadvantage. In other words, crime is a symptom of these conditions rather than a cause. As Mennis and Harris put it, the problem derives from “delinquent subcultures that emerge in reaction to low levels of opportunity.” Reference:Mennis, J., & Harris, P. (2011). Contagion and repeat offending among urban juvenile delinquents. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 951-963.Links to related stories on Prevention Action:When togetherness can do more harm than goodWe interrupt this violence with a program…

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