Did Passionate Advocates Do It?

As everybody except Jeff Sessions and a handful of the guys at PoliceOne know, crime has fallen dramatically. This would be a good thing, but for the fact that it means all the things we absolutely must do to prevent crime can’t be excused under the circumstances, which is why Sessions is desperately trying to thread the needle between fact and fear. But I digress.

Crime is down. Way down. And there is a brand new explanation for why.

Most theories for the great crime decline that swept across nearly every major American city over the last 25 years have focused on the would-be criminals.

Their lives changed in many ways starting in the 1990s: Strict new policing tactics kept closer watch on them. Mass incarceration locked them up in growing numbers. The crack epidemic that ensnared many began to recede. Even the more unorthodox theories — around the rise of abortion, the reduction in lead or the spread of A.D.H.D. medication— have argued that larger shifts in society altered the behavior (and existence) of potential criminals.

Certainly the cops want to take the credit, which not only justifies their keeping on keeping on, but explains why you should love them so much. But don’t be concerned about the limits of this list, as the good stuff is coming.

But none of these explanations have paid much attention to the communities where violence plummeted the most. New research suggests that people there were working hard, with little credit, to address the problem themselves.

Local nonprofit groups that responded to the violence by cleaning streets, building playgrounds, mentoring children and employing young men had a real effect on the crime rate. That’s what Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, argues in a new study and a forthcoming book. Mr. Sharkey doesn’t contend that community groups alone drove the national decline in crime, but rather that their impact is a major missing piece.

At first glance, this might come off as a bit too self-congratulatory. People who passionately want to do something similarly want to believe that what they did wasn’t a pointless waste of time. Sure, their good intentions may have served a higher purpose, but maybe it actually worked.

Mr. Sharkey and the doctoral students Gerard Torrats-Espinosa and Delaram Takyar used data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics to track the rise of nonprofits in 264 cities across more than 20 years. Nonprofits were more likely to form in the communities with the gravest problems. But they also sprang up for reasons that had little to do with local crime trends, such as an expansion in philanthropic funding. A spike in nonprofits addressing subjects like the arts and medical research occurred in this same era.

Comparing the growth of other kinds of nonprofits, the researchers believe they were able to identify the causal effect of these community groups: Every 10 additional organizations in a city with 100,000 residents, they estimate, led to a 9 percent drop in the murder rate and a 6 percent drop in violent crime.

If your immediate reaction isn’t “correlation does not prove causation,” then you would have done poorly on the LSATs. But then, it also doesn’t disprove causation, either.

To lump all nonprofits together is absurd. Some perform “boots on the ground” services, like food pantries, while others are mostly adept at collecting donations and litigating trademark disputes. And there is no shortage of well-intended groups that are fundamentally counterproductive to their cause, fueled by fantasy beliefs promoting doomed solutions.

In a criminology field that has produced some eyebrow-raising ideas, this one is actually not so surprising. That national finding echoes local studies of some individual programs, like one run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that converts abandoned lots into green spaces and that has been linked in Philadelphia to reduced gun violence.

And indeed, a rather interesting discussion of community activism follows, from cleaning up vacant lots to providing drug treatment follows.

Mr. Sharkey is pointing to one possible solution with less evident downsides. And he’s suggesting that communities can effectively take on the very roles that the police say have strained them as they’ve increasingly been asked to perform jobs they weren’t trained for, as guidance counselors or marriage therapists or substance-abuse experts.

What makes this particularly notable is that it replaces the use of police to fix community problems with non-law-enforcement, non-legal, non-incarceratory solutions. This is the antithesis of the knee-jerk answer of “government should solve all our problems” that has led to over-criminalization and over-incarceration. Rather than cry for a new law to solve the horror du jour, community groups are taking care of their own.

Is this why crime dropped? Maybe. Maybe not. But serious efforts to help people by taking care of people in need in a community can’t hurt, even if it had nothing to do with the drop in crime. And it surely beats the hell out of criminalizing breathing and imprisoning people for life plus cancer. So why not? Even if it doesn’t fix all societal problems, it helps people one at a time, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

6 thoughts on “Did Passionate Advocates Do It?

  1. B. McLeod

    Maybe it is because the people killing each other in droves in the major urban centers no longer survive to commit the other crimes they would have liked to commit, because the primary focus is on their gang wars. Maybe it is a collateral impact of all the people police are killing. Maybe someone is just dicking with the statistics again. One could speculate endlessly.

    Of course, nobody will really be inclined to give the gangsters, or police or statistical manipulators credit, so non-profits are a better sell under the axiom that people prefer to believe what they would prefer to be true.

    1. SHG Post author

      As long as it’s limited to the non-profits that actually did something worthwhile, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t try to glom some of the credit too. It’s not as if anyone has a more provable answer.

      1. B. McLeod

        I suppose. My many years on the planet have made me susceptible to an almost incorrigible cynicism. Sometimes I forget to place any faith in the possibility that some of the claims of progress could be factually based.

            1. Lee

              “First, do no harm.”

              It seems to me that asking police to heal the community just like asking the schools to raise our kids. Some things are just better done by communities and families, and not the state.

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