A study gave cash and therapy to men engaged in crime. 10 years later, it's proving a big success.




Could you imagine a world where you could dramatically reduce the crime rate just by shelling out $1.50? While it sounds too good to be true, a new study by Chris Blattman, Margaret Sheridan, Julian Jamison and Sebastian Chaskel found that offering a few weeks of behavioral therapy and some cash to men who were at high risk for committing violent crime reduces their future risk of crime and violence, even 10 years after the intervention. In a Twitter thread shared last month, Blattman—an economist at the University of Chicago—shared that the seed for the study was planted in 2009 when he was hanging out with an acquaintance in Liberia named Johnson Borh, who showed him around the capital city of Monrovia.

Blattman, who studies crime and violence, asked Borh to take him to visit the pickpockets, drug sellers and others living on the margins of society. "Every time we go to one of these shady places, there's a guy on the corner shining shoes or selling clothes out of a wheelbarrow or something else pretty basic. He spots Borh, gets excited and comes and gives him a hug. I ask 'how do you know Borh?' Each time the same response: 'I used to be like him,' and they'd point to the drug den or pickpockets, 'but then I went through Borh's program.' After the 6th time this happens, I make Borh tell me all about the program. It's called STYL: Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia," Blattman shared on Twitter.



The Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia program offered at-risk men eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based method of dealing with issues such as anxiety. According to VICE, Borh adapted the therapeutic strategy to deal with issues like violence and crime. "He and his organization, NEPI, recruited the most dangerous men in the city. People who led lives of violence. They met in abandoned buildings, in groups of maybe 20 for a couple of hours a day," Blattman tweeted. During these meetings, the men would meet with a counselor and practice specific behavioral changes, like managing anger and exerting self-control.



They’d also rehearse trying on a new identity completely unlike their past, by changing their clothes and haircuts and working to reintegrate themselves into mainstream society. Intrigued by what he saw, Blattman decided to run a big randomized controlled trial with 999 of the most dangerous men in Monrovia, recruited on the street, to formally study just how effective this kind of program could be. The 999 subjects were split into four groups. While some received CBT, others got $200 in cash. Another group got the CBT and the cash while the fourth group got neither to serve as a control group.



A month after the intervention, it was determined that both the therapy group and the therapy-plus-cash group were showing positive results. A year later, Blattman's group found that while positive effects on those who got therapy alone had faded a bit, those who got therapy plus cash were still showing huge impacts. So much so that crime and violence were down about 50%. Yet, Blattman didn't dare to hope that this impact would last a long time. Even the experts he surveyed predicted that the effects would steeply diminish over the years, as they do in many interventions. However, when Blattman tracked down the original men from the study 10 years later and reevaluated them, he was pleasantly surprised to find that crime and violence were still down by about 50% in the therapy-plus-cash group.

According to Blattman, there were 338 fewer crimes per participant over 10 years. Given that it had cost just $530 per participant to implement the program, it cost about $1.50 for every crime avoided. But why did the combination of CBT and some cash work? Blattman believes the $200 given to each man enabled them to pursue a few months of legitimate business activity after the therapy ended. That facilitated a few extra months of getting to cement their new noncriminal identity and behavioral changes. "Basically, it gave them time to practice," said Blattman.

Inspired by the STYL program in Liberia, Chicago has been implementing a similar but more intensive program called READI, in which men in the city's most violent districts participate in therapy sessions in the morning and job training in the afternoon for a duration of 18 months. The city is also home to a program called Becoming a Man (BAM), where high schoolers do CBT-inspired group sessions. A randomized controlled trial determined that criminal arrests fell by about half during the BAM program. Even though its effects dissipated over time, the program was very cost-effective. "It's all about a progressive, rational policy for social control," said David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York. "Social inclusion is the most productive means of social control."







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