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Community Organizations Have Important Role in Lowering Crime Rates

Research shows that in a city of 100,000, each new nonprofit community organization lead to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate, a 1 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 0.7 percent reduction in the property crime rate.

  • Noah Atchison
April 20, 2018

Earlier this year, Pres­id­ent Donald Trump declared April “Second Chance Month.” He asked Amer­ic­ans to focus on ways to prevent crime while support­ing activ­it­ies that give formerly incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als another oppor­tun­ity to success­fully live and work in communit­ies around the coun­try.

It’s a senti­ment that can contra­dict the admin­is­tra­tion’s draconian crime policies. But it’s a goal that most crim­inal justice reformers share with him. One way to get there, accord­ing to research from soci­olo­gists at New York Univer­sity, is to support community organ­iz­a­tions. This study provides empir­ical evid­ence for some­thing community organ­izers have said for decades: crime reduc­tion is diffi­cult without address­ing prob­lems stem­ming from chronic poverty. These organ­iz­a­tions play a signi­fic­ant role in redu­cing crime rates not by chan­ging justice system policy but by provid­ing more support for indi­vidu­als without a wealth of economic resources. 

Research­ers at NYU compared crime rates and the form­a­tion of new nonprofits that focus on crime preven­tion, neigh­bor­hood devel­op­ment, substance abuse, work­force devel­op­ment, and youth program­ming across 264 cities in the U.S. between 1990 and 2013. They found that in a city of 100,000, each new nonprofit community organ­iz­a­tion lead to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate, a one percent reduc­tion in the viol­ent crime rate, and a 0.7 percent reduc­tion in the prop­erty crime rate. Substance abuse programs were respons­ible for the largest drops, followed by work­force devel­op­ment organ­iz­a­tions.

One of the best ways to prevent crime is to provide more resources and support to low-income communit­ies. For poli­cy­makers, this means expand­ing access to substance abuse and work­force devel­op­ment programs, two services that have become increas­ingly inac­cess­ible even as demand for them has grown.

The cost of a two-year degree at a public college has more than doubled since 1990 (adjus­ted for infla­tion), making low-cost work­force devel­op­ment programs the most afford­able option for millions of Amer­ic­ans. Simil­arly, private substance abuse treat­ment programs can cost tens of thou­sands of dollars a year, making free or low-cost services from community-based nonprofits the only real­istic way for many people way to receive treat­ment.

Afford­ab­il­ity aside, access to drug abuse treat­ment programs in low-income communit­ies and communit­ies of color is signi­fic­antly lower than in more afflu­ent, whiter communit­ies. While the posit­ive effect of substance abuse treat­ment on crime rates has been known for decades, community organ­iz­a­tions remain the sole providers of afford­able treat­ment in neigh­bor­hoods across the coun­try.

Too often, incar­cer­a­tion has been used as a solu­tion for drug abuse issues, and a substi­tute for treat­ment. That dynamic has helped fuel mass incar­cer­a­tion in Amer­ica. We at the Bren­nan Center estim­ate that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison popu­la­tion, or 576,000 people, are behind bars for little or no public safety reason. And we’ve found that incar­cer­a­tion drove very little of the crime decline in recent years. As we note in our 2015 report What Caused the Crime Decline?, social and economic factors had a more signi­fic­ant impact on public safety.

Federal legis­la­tion such as the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act would provide resources to states to pursue creat­ive approaches to help­ing communit­ies bring down crime, while bills like the Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act would help fix our misguided use of overly-harsh punish­ments to reduce crime. While more research is needed to improve our public response to crime, support­ing the community organ­iz­a­tions that helped drive the crime decline is an excel­lent place to start.