One study gave money and therapy to men at risk for criminal behavior. 10 years later, the results are there.

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What if someone told you that you could dramatically reduce the crime rate without resorting to coercive policing or incarceration? In fact, what if they said you could avoid a serious crime – say theft, or maybe even murder – just by paying $1.50?

It’s such a good deal that it seems too good to be true. But this has been confirmed by research by Chris Blattman, Margaret Sheridan, Julian Jamison and Sebastian Chaskel. Their new study provides experimental evidence that offering at-risk men a few weeks of behavior therapy plus some cash reduces future risk of crime and violence, even 10 years after the intervention.

Blattman, an economist at the University of Chicago, never intended to conduct this study. But in 2009, he was hanging out with an acquaintance in Liberia named Johnson Borh, who showed him around the capital Monrovia. Since Blattman has studied crime and violence, Borh has taken him to visit pickpockets, drug dealers, and others living on the margins of society.

Along the way, they kept running into guys who were sitting on street corners making a meager living shining shoes or selling clothes. When these men spotted Borh, they ran to give him a hug. Blattman remember that when he asked the men how they knew Borh, they answered something like “I was like them” and pointed to nearby pickpockets or drug dealers. “But then I followed Borh’s program.”

That’s how Blattman learned about the program Borh had been running for 15 years: Sustainable Youth Transformation in Liberia. It offered men at high risk for violent crime eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT, as it’s called, is a popular, evidence-based method for treating issues like anxiety, but Borh has adapted the therapy strategy to deal with issues like violence and crime.

Meeting with a counselor in groups of about 20, the men practiced specific behavior changes, such as anger management and self-control. They would also rehearse by trying on a new identity unrelated to their past behavior, changing their clothes and haircuts, and striving to reintegrate into mainstream society through community sports, banking, etc.

Blattman wanted to formally study how effective this type of program could be. He decided to conduct a large randomized controlled trial with 999 of the most dangerous men in Monrovia, recruited from the streets. The results were so promising that they have already inspired a sister program in a very different city: Chicago.

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In Chicago, the murder rate is extremely high and police fail to solve 95% of all shootings. Finding a way to prevent shootings and other violent crimes is an urgent priority — not just in this city, but across the United States, as recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas remind us. Given that direct interventions such as the removal of guns are largely blocked by political polarization and that trying to suppress crime after the fact carries risks of political brutality, we desperately need new solutions to the problem of violence.

Therapy plus money was a surprisingly successful combo

The 999 Liberian men were divided into four groups. Some received a CBT, while others received $200 cash. Another group received CBT plus cash, and finally there was a control group that received neither.

One month after the intervention, both the therapy group and the therapy plus money group showed positive results. A year after the intervention, the positive effects on those who received therapy alone had faded somewhat, but those who received therapy plus cash still showed huge impacts: crime and violence had reduced by about 50%.

But Blattman dared not hope that this impact would persist. The experts he interviewed predicted that the effects would diminish sharply over the years, as is the case with many interventions.

So it was a big surprise when, 10 years later, he tracked down the original men in the study and reassessed them. Surprisingly, crime and violence were still down about 50% in the therapy plus money group.

Blattman estimates there have been 338 fewer crimes per participant over 10 years. Since it only cost $530 per participant to implement the program, this equates to $1.50 per crime averted.

In short, it worked really well. But Why did the CBT combination and some money?

It is practice makes perfect

The most plausible hypothesis, according to Blattman, is that the $200 in cash enabled the men to pursue a few months of legitimate business activity — say, shoe shine — after therapy ended. This meant a few more months to cement their new, non-criminal identity and behavioral changes. “It basically gave them time to practice,” Blattman told me.

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A few caveats: The study relied heavily on self-reported data on what behaviors participants did or did not engage in, which may raise concerns about experimenter demand (where participants tell experimenters what they want to hear). Additionally, of the 999 men initially enrolled in the study, 103 had died at the time of the 10-year follow-up.

This might make you wonder if the more violent men, who might have been more resilient to the effects of the program, were simply missing from the reassessment, artificially making violent crime appear to have fallen more than it did. had actually done.

But there are caveats to caveats. For one thing, the study authors didn’t rely solely on self-reported data; they also observed how participants acted in incentive games where, for example, they had a choice between getting $1 now or $5 next week (a good example of self-control and forward thinking). “Our treatment effects are strong and persistent in these outcomes,” the study notes.

By interviewing friends and relatives of each deceased participant, the authors also determined the cause of death. They only identified 26 violent deaths. And even when they modeled what would happen to their results if they incorporated “good” results for missing members of the control group and “bad” results for missing members of the treatment group, the positive effect of treatment for therapy plus the money remained largely.

Overturning the mainstream approach to crime

Inspired by the program in Liberia, Chicago implemented a similar but more intensive program called READI. For 18 months, men from the city’s most violent neighborhoods attend therapy sessions in the morning, followed by job training in the afternoon. The reason for the latter is that in a place with a well-developed labor market like Chicago, the best way to improve incomes is probably to attract people to the market, whereas in Liberia the labor market is much less efficient, which makes it more logical to offer people money.

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“We’ll have more results this summer,” said Blattman of the READI program, which he helps advise. So far “this doesn’t feel like a slam dunk”.

Still, Chicago is eager to try these therapy-based approaches, having already had some success with them. The city is also home to a program called Becoming a Man (BAM), where high school students hold CBT-inspired group sessions. A randomized controlled trial showed that criminal arrests decreased by about half during the BAM program. Although the effects have dissipated over time, the program appears to be very cost effective.

But it’s not just a story about the growing recognition that therapy can play a useful role in crime prevention. This trend is part of a broader movement to adopt a more carrot, less stick approach to crime.

“This is a progressive and rational policy of social control. Social inclusion is the most productive means of social control,” David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York, explained to me in 2019.

Brotherton has long argued that mainstream American policy is coercive and punitive, counterproductive. His research has shown that helping at-risk people reintegrate into mainstream society, including offering them money, is much more effective in reducing violence.

To give a stark example from Brotherton’s research: In 2007, the crime-ridden nation of Ecuador legalized the gangs that had been the source of much of the violence. The country allowed gangs to transform into cultural associations that could register with the government, which allowed them to qualify for subsidies and benefit from social programs.

Can you guess what happened to the murder rate over the next few years?

It’s true. He fell.

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