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.