There’s something strange happening with violent crime in America. Incidents are reaching levels they haven’t hit in decades, and nobody seems to know why. But, to go even deeper, what causes violent crime to happen at all—and what can be done to help prevent it?
Prof. Jens Ludwig is an economist and urban policy expert at the University of Chicago and the Pritzker Director of the Crime Lab, which partners with policymakers in major cities across the country to help reduce gun violence and reduce the harms of the criminal justice system itself. Using randomized control trials and massive data sets, he and his colleagues have been able to find demonstrable policy strategies and community programs for preventing crime.
(Episode published December 9, 2021)
Police car illustration courtesy of VisuaLingo
- The great debate on gun violence—CNN
- Op-ed: New York and Los Angeles got their gun violence under control. Why can’t Chicago do the same?—Chicago Tribune
- Demand solutions to gun violence—Chicago Sun Times
- Data Points: How the pandemic has accelerated carjackings in Chicago—Chicago Tribune
- Data Points: Illegal gun carrying in Chicago spiked in 2020 — and deadly violence followed—Chicago Tribune
Paul Rand: There’s something strange happening with violent crime in America.
Tape: The FBI has released new data showing a major increase in murders last year in the U.S.
Paul Rand: Incidents of violent crime are reaching levels they haven’t hit in decades.
Tape: An increase we haven’t seen since 1995.
Paul Rand: And nobody seems to know why.
Tape: The causes are not well understood, and there are strong disagreements about how to address the problem.
Paul Rand: But to go even deeper, what causes violent crime to happen at all, and more importantly, what can be done to help prevent it?
Jens Ludwig: The policy makers, no one really understands nearly enough about what the most effective and humane ways are to address the constellation of challenges is that our cities are struggling with right now.
Paul Rand: That’s Jens Ludwig, an economist and urban policy expert at the University of Chicago and the Pritzker Director of the Crime Lab, which partners with policy makers in major cities across the country to help reduce gun violence and reduce the harms of the criminal justice system itself.
Jens Ludwig: If you look at the murder rate that we have in the United States today, it’s almost exactly the same as what it was in 1950. We’ve made almost no long term progress, and the incarceration rate in the United States today, I think as everyone knows, is dramatically higher. A big reason for that is because we are just so non data driven in addressing these policy problems,
Paul Rand: Ludwig and the Crime Lab take a unique approach. They focus square early on the data to study quantifiable and replicable ways to reduce crime and answer some of these complex questions.
Jens Ludwig: I think there’s much more room for optimism now that we can use the tools of social policy and partner with community groups to prevent crime and especially gun violence from occurring in the first place so we don’t have to rely on this exclusive after the fact criminal justice and incarceration approach.
Paul Rand: The one of a kind data his team collects provides a sense of hope to what often feels like a senseless and hopeless problem. And he says, it’s still important to remember.
Jens Ludwig: Every data point is a human being.
Paul Rand: From University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and the pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world, on this episode, taking a data-driven approach to gun violence. I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: You hear it everywhere these days, “We’re taking a data driven approach to X, Y, or Z.” It can start to sound meaningless, but when lives are at stake, it makes all the difference.
Jens Ludwig: If you look at what happened over the 20th century around the world, life expectancy for human beings basically doubled between 1900 and 2000, which is an absolutely incredible accomplishment. And one of reasons for the doubling of life expectancy is in medicine, we take data very, very seriously. In the US context, the FDA doesn’t let any sort of new treatment be scaled up and delivered to lots of people before it’s been subject to a randomized controlled trial because we recognize it’s critically important to understand what’s actually effective before we adopt this at large scale.
Jens Ludwig: My youngest daughter, Willa, she’s eight now, but when she was two or three, we unfortunately discovered that she had a very severe peanut allergy, and the very first thing that we did is we raced over to Comer Children’s Hospital to enroll her in a pediatric drug trial. I think the only way that we are going to help everybody’s kids avoid the emergency department is by doing things like these randomized trials to help us better understand how to prevent these severe allergic reactions.
Jens Ludwig: When you hear someone offering opinions about medical issues based on things like political ideology, “I don’t want to take the COVID vaccine because of whatever,” when people look at medical issues and offer opinions based on their intuition, their gut, “I think I can cure COVID by injecting bleach or eating lots of garlic,” we look at that and think it’s crazy.
Paul Rand: Some of us do.
Jens Ludwig: Some of us do. In contrast, when you look at how we think about dealing with problems like gun violence and the harms of the criminal justice system, in some sense, that’s basically all that we do, is just view things through political lenses or through our intuition.
Jens Ludwig: We organized a conference through the Urban Labs recently and one of the speakers there said that only something like 1% of what the public sector does actually has any evidence behind it, right? Most of what we do in addressing public policy problems, unlike in medicine, it’s purely politics and intuition, and that’s a big problem, and I think you can see that in the results or in the lack of results.
Paul Rand: So, Ludwig and the Crime Lab use randomized controlled trials to find ways to address violent crime. We’ll get to those in a minute, but first, it’s important to understand what causes violent crime in the first place. And for most of this conversation, when we’re talking about violent crime, what we’re talking about is gun violence.
Jens Ludwig: Gun violence is absolutely devastating. What we’re seeing is a growing body of data and research showing that it’s not just the victims, that gun violence devastates entire communities. There’s a sociologist, this great sociologist at Princeton named Pat Sharkey, who’s shown all of the ways in which growing up in communities where there’s lots of gun violence really harms children’s development, it negatively affects their mental health, it harms their schooling outcomes. Our University of Chicago colleague, Steve Levitt wrote a paper about 20 years ago showing that gun violence in particular is one of the big drivers of population loss from cities. So, when you look at the city of Chicago, for instance, everybody knows that the population has been declining over time, we’re a population loser on net. Most of that population loss is disproportionately concentrated in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Chicago south and west side. Since 1980, the city has lost something like 400,000 Black residents. By way of putting that in a perspective, that’s roughly equal to the entire population of the city of Minneapolis. Gun violence represents really an existential threat, not just to Chicago, but to every city in America.
Paul Rand: And that problem has been getting increasingly worse. We’ve all seen the statistics according to the CDC. Homicide rates rose 30% between 2019 and 2020, the highest single year increase in modern history. In Cook county here in Illinois, there have been more than 1,000 homicides in 2021, the highest number since 1994.
Paul Rand: Ludwig looks at more crime data than most people in the world. So, what’s going on here?
Jens Ludwig: As a scientist, I think the preamble that I have to start with is the confession that nobody really knows for sure, and so what I’m going to offer you is my best hypothesis for what’s going on, but recognizing that it’ll take us a while to understand what we are going through right now. But with that said, I think there are really two explanations. My hypothesis is there are two key explanations for the rise in gun violence that we’ve seen the last couple years all across the country, and I think it is the mental health fall out of the pandemic and a rise in gun carrying in public places.
Jens Ludwig: So, last summer, the centers for disease control did a population survey of American adults to try and better understand what the effects of the pandemic were on people’s mental health. Something like 40% of American adults said they were struggling with mental health or substance abuse, 40%.
Paul Rand: 40%. Wow.
Jens Ludwig: Now, if you look at the gun violence problem, right, gun violence is concentrated among relatively young people, say 18 to 24 is unfortunately one of the peak ages of gun violence involvement. If you look at the CDC mental health survey, something like 75% of 18 to 24 year olds were struggling with mental health or substance abuse during the pandemic, and fully, one in four 18 to 24 year olds in America had considered suicide over the last 30 days.
Paul Rand: My gosh.
Jens Ludwig: Right? It is a public health crisis of a sort that we just haven’t seen before, certainly in my lifetime, and it’s a public health crisis that is very disproportionately concentrated in our most under-resourced, economically disadvantaged, and predominantly, unfortunately, Black and brown neighborhoods in cities like Chicago and cities all around the United States.
Jens Ludwig: The second thing that has happened is a change in the functioning of the criminal justice system, but I think not for the reason that a lot of people think. As the pandemic started in March 2020, the criminal justice system, for understandable public health concerns, decided to really limit in-person interactions to the degree to which they could, right? And you can see in the data, one of the things that law enforcement did all across the country was greatly reduced the rate at which they interact with the public, unless it was absolutely critically necessary, and you can understand why. Unfortunately, what we saw around the same time was, even though the rate at which the police were stopping people declined so much, the total number of illegal guns that the police were taking off the streets actually increased.
Jens Ludwig: Now, I don’t think the police got lots better at intuiting who in public would be carrying guns, and so I think the most logical explanation for that is that the prevalence of gun carrying really increased a lot. And we did some analysis on that point for the Chicago Tribune. This guy, Jeff Asher, did a version of that analysis for other cities, for, I think, Vox, and found something very similar going on in other cities around the country. And so I think you can see this combination of below the surface public health crisis interacted with this rise in gun carrying is really unfortunately a recipe for a rise in gun violence in our cities.
Paul Rand: But there’s a bigger question here that goes beyond the recent trend. Why do people decide to commit gun violence at all?
Jens Ludwig: One of the things in your question that itself is really interesting, the way you phrase the question, “Why are people deciding to commit crime?”
Paul Rand: I assume it’s conscious. Maybe it’s not.
Jens Ludwig: Yeah. I mean, I think the deciding itself is an interesting formulation and frame on the problem, right? And so I think maybe one place that’s useful to start is to just be clear about what gun violence in America is exactly. If you watch, say, The Wire, you have an image of what gun violence in America is, right? It is the result of robberies.
Tape: All right, everybody, let me see them hands, yo. Hands. Yo, big man, back up.
Jens Ludwig: It is the result of gang wars over drug selling turf.
Audio: Barksdale and Bell, they’re the new power. I mean, they drop 10 or 12 bodies in as many months, beat three cases in court doing the same thing they just did to you.
Jens Ludwig: Right? So, you have a mental image from watching media sources like The Wire of gun by violence as motivated by money, and being premeditated and deliberate.
Jens Ludwig: Now, this is hard to figure out from news accounts. If you really dig into the data, what you can see is that the vast majority of gun violence and shootings in the United States are very different from that. They are actually arguments. They start with heated words and they escalate-
Paul Rand: Of people that know each other.
Jens Ludwig: They know each other, they don’t know each other, right? Someone steps on your shoe walking off the CTA.
Paul Rand: Got it.
Jens Ludwig: Somebody says something about your girlfriend or your wife or whatever, right? Could get deescalated, but sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t, and then it ends in tragedy because someone has a gun.
Jens Ludwig: So, if you look at the data from the city of Chicago, for instance, something like three-quarters of the murders in Chicago stem from altercations, from arguments.
Paul Rand: That’s just absolutely fascinating. Okay.
Jens Ludwig: It is fascinating. If you think about what has the policy conversation been like in the United States for the last 50 years, the left and the right, in some sense, agree at a very high level that the problem is one of incentives. Now, the left and the right disagree about whether that should come in the form of more sticks or in the form of more carrots, but implicit in the discussion is the idea that the solution to the crime problem is about incentivizing people to choose to not commit crimes.
Jens Ludwig: It misses two key ideas. It misses the fact that gun violence really is the driver of the harms of crime in the United States, as I mentioned before, and it also misses the fact that the overwhelming majority of shootings in the United States stem from altercations, right? And once you see that, you start to realize the problem that you’re trying to solve is very different from what you would’ve imagine, and you start to see that there are situational factors then that become much more important than you had originally appreciated.
Jens Ludwig: Just think about the last argument that you were in. If you really reflect on that, you appreciate what an incredibly complicated social interaction and argument is, right? I have my thoughts about the other person, and they have their thoughts about me, but I also have my thoughts about what they think of me, and they also have their thoughts about what I think of them. You can see it’s very, very complicated and how we navigate that argument, that altercation really requires an enormous amount of sophisticated cognition thinking.
Jens Ludwig: But one of the things that we’ve learned from the last several decades of behavioral science is conscious, deliberate thinking really is enormously effortful. And so all of us develop automatic or what psychologists call system one responses to situations that we see over and over again. They rely on rules of thumb, what psychologists call heuristics, and they are often emotional reactions rather than deliberately thought through reactions.
Jens Ludwig: The reason that that’s important is an argument is a situation where we desperately need to be thinking clearly, but one of the things that psychologists have shown us... My friend Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir wrote a book a few years ago called Scarcity that shows that stress depletes mental bandwidths and causes all of us to rely more on our system on automatic emotional heuristic rule of thumb responses, and still, we know that in economically disadvantaged, under resourced neighborhoods, stress and trauma are much more prevalent than in more affluent neighborhoods. And so for both of those reasons, the chances of these arguments inadvertently going from zero to 100 in no seconds flat can be higher in under-resourced economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and then you combine that with the fact that illegal guns are more prevalent in some neighborhoods as well, so the stakes of the argument going sideways and not getting deescalated can be much higher.
Jens Ludwig: If I can just add one more thing, which is the frame that we have put on the crime problem, on the gun violence problem, especially here in the United States and especially over the last 50 years really has been that crime is due to bad people. And I think what we are starting to learn much more from the data and the behavioral science research, is that situations play a much more important role in understanding crime, and especially gun violence, than I think we had appreciated.
Jens Ludwig: And so, one of the very first studies that I was part of myself was a federal government demonstration project called Moving to Opportunity. It started in 1994, it moved families at a very economically disadvantaged distressed neighborhoods, this is like the old Robert Taylor Homes and State Street and Garfield Boulevard here on this outside, help families move from neighborhoods like that to more affluent neighborhoods like Hyde Park. And it was structured just like a randomized controlled trial that provides gold standard evidence in medicine, and so some families moved, some families didn’t move, and so we could tease out the effects of the neighborhood from something about the people themselves. And you could see that for the teenagers who moved from the distressed neighborhoods to the less distressed neighborhoods, the rate at which they were involved in violent crime declined by something like 50%.
Paul Rand: Just by location.
Jens Ludwig: Your character does not magically change when you move a couple miles, from 55th in Garfield Boulevard over here to Hyde Park, right? It really helps you see the massive and underappreciated importance, I think, of the situation. If you understand the crime and violence problem as being due to bad people, you can see how that very quickly gets you to a mental place where you think the only thing that you can do is lock somebody up for life, right? You would only lock someone up for life if you thought they were incapable of changing. And also, if you think that crime is due to intrinsically bad people, of course you will under-invest in prevention. Once you recognize that the situations play a much more important role, it’s fallible people in difficult situations, I think it radically changes your view of the potential for prevention, for starters, and the types of policy strategies that you would use to effectively prevent violence.
Paul Rand: Using randomized controlled trials and massive data sets, the Crime Lab has been able to find demonstrable policy strategies and programs for preventing gun violence, and the numbers really are just jaw-dropping. These policies, after the break.
Paul Rand: Let’s transition, if we can, into what do you do about it? And I know you’ve got specific thoughts. And tell me if this is fair or not, but if we’re looking at two sides of this coin, one is community and not for profit programs that address some of these intrinsic challenges that you’re talking about, and the other is law enforcement. Is that the right way to think about this or is it a more nuanced answer of how we should look at prevention?
Jens Ludwig: If you look at cities that have become safe around the world, every city essentially relies on those two big picture policy levers, which is some combination of social policy and the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, to different degrees. And I think most observers would look at the United States over the last 50 years and degree that our policy approaches the last 50 years have leaned too exclusively on the criminal justice system to the exclusion of social policy.
Jens Ludwig: So, let me start with what additional things you could do on the social policy side.
Paul Rand: All of the social programs that the Crime Lab has participated in revolve around the same general idea, helping at risk people develop strategies to prevent a bad situation from turning into a life altering one.
Jens Ludwig: A few years ago, I was visiting the juvenile temporary detention center on the west side of Chicago on Roosevelt Road. This is where the system holds teenage offenders who the system has deemed to be the highest violence risk, right? And I was talking to one of the staff members there who said, he said, “Some small set of the kids have deep-seated trauma. They would go on to commit violent crime if you release them,” but he said, “The other 80%, I always tell them, if I could give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, none of you would be here.” That has led to two different types of social policy approaches that I think we’ve started to have some success in cities around the country. And one is programs like youth guidances Becoming A Man, that help people anticipate those difficult 10 minute windows and navigate them when they’re in them.
Paul Rand: Becoming A Man is a program started by Youth Guidance, a nonprofit in Chicago which holds weekly sessions for at risk young men to discuss ways to cope with challenges in their lives. And through a randomized controlled trial, the Crime Lab has been able to scientifically prove how effective programs like this can be. Participants had 50% fewer arrests for violent crimes.
Jens Ludwig: The result is kids who participate in the programs, their high school graduation rates go up by 20%, the rate at which kids are involved in the criminal justice system declines, and the violence in their communities declines as well.
Paul Rand: And that’s just one program. There’s also READI, an initiative that connects people at risk of gun violence with employment, counseling, and support services. A Preliminary Crime Lab study show that participants in that program have 79% fewer arrests for shootings and homicides.
Jens Ludwig: There’s much more room for optimism now that we can use the tools of social policy and partner with community groups to prevent crime, and especially gun violence, from occurring in the first place, so we don’t have to rely on this exclusive after-the-fact criminal justice and incarceration approach.
Paul Rand: I know we’re having a pretty simplified conversation, but there’s clarity in a lot of what you’re saying and at least something very tangible for folks to get their arms around. What’s getting in the way of allowing us to be effective in places from implementing some of the things that you’re articulating?
Jens Ludwig: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, I think that one of the challenges that is getting in the way of more effective policy responses is, in some ways, the structure and financing of government in the United States.
Paul Rand: Like everything else, it comes down to money, and many of these programs are wrapped up with the education system. And if you want to look at a broken funding structure, look no further than our schools.
Jens Ludwig: So, I saw a national foundation recently say that, when you look at big city school systems like Chicago’s, it’s underfunded by about a third, right? And we’ve done some calculations. If you could just get the state of Illinois to be at the national average in terms of state support for cities, the murder rate in Chicago would decline by something like 20 or 30%, just by funding the Chicago public schools at an adequate level.
Paul Rand: What dollar amount would that be?
Jens Ludwig: That’s something like $6,000 per kid, right? So, it would be another one or two billion on top of the school system’s six or seven billion current budget. Okay?
Paul Rand: And by the way, where should Jeff Bezos send the check?
Jens Ludwig: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I’m sure city hall in Chicago and city hall in Gary, Indiana-
Paul Rand: Would get there.
Jens Ludwig: ... and every city hall across the country would be very, very happy to get the help. So, I think the school system is in many ways, the most important social policy lever that society has to prevent gun violence in the first place, right?
Paul Rand: The Crime Lab has looked at other school based programs. One is, Choose to Change, a behavioral science informed mentoring program. It found that participants were 48% less likely to be arrested for violent crimes.
Jens Ludwig: When you think about all the other things that cities are trying to do to prevent violence, for all those other things, social programs like Becoming A Man and Street Outreach and Violence Interruption and so on, and so on, we really have not yet reached the point where states and the federal government have recognized that cities financially can’t do it on their own. They’re like islands surrounded by an ocean of affluent suburbs, and we haven’t quite done enough to figure out... And the suburbs greatly benefit from being near these big cities, but we haven’t adequately figured out a way to change our policies to have enough resource sharing from the affluent suburbs into the cities where the cities have adequate funding to do all of the things that I think the data and the science are telling us would be really helpful in preventing gun violence in the first place.
Paul Rand: But it’s not only young people who are at risk. What about programs like READI, which don’t focus on kids?
Jens Ludwig: There’s another challenge here, which is that there is a huge and deliberate hole in the US social safety net. If you look at where social policy spending goes in the United States, it essentially goes to families with kids and elderly people. And from the beginning of the US social safety net, as we know it, in the 30s, and then again in the 60s, the assumption has always been that working age men would be working.
Jens Ludwig: And maybe that assumption made sense for certain time periods and certain places, but a few years ago, I remember seeing a statistic that is sometimes published that if you look at Black 18 to 24 year old men in Chicago, I think their statistic was something like 45% are not enrolled in school and not working. So, there is nothing in the social safety net to solve that problem right now, and that is a deep structural problem that makes it hard to support all of these social policy responses that would not just help address the gun violence problem, because that’s the population that’s bearing the biggest burden from gun violence, but also make people’s lives better in all sorts of other ways as well.
Paul Rand: There’s another side of the coin when it comes to crime prevention, a much more contentious side; law enforcement. And if you follow these debates, there’s something you’ve probably heard before, that if you increase law enforcement, crime will go down. So, is that true?
Jens Ludwig: One part of it is just looking at the data, right, honestly looking at the data. And here’s, I think, what the best available data tell us, which is, when you put additional resources into police, so crime goes down, especially serious violent crime, and especially in communities of color, and arrests for serious violent crimes go down at the same time. So, whatever policing is doing is some sort of like preventive deterrent, whatever it is, rather than just simply locking tons of people up for everything. Now, there are two caveats to that. One caveat to that is we do see arrests for low level minor crimes can go up disproportionally in communities of color as well. And so I think the challenge for the field there is trying to figure out how you get the public safety benefits from policing in American cities without the collateral harms from low level crime enforcement.
Paul Rand: And that really is the million dollar question. To try and tackle it, the Crime Lab has partnered with the Council on Criminal Justice to launch an independent task force on policing to use their data-driven approach to identify policies and practices that are likely to improve the fairness and the effectiveness of law enforcement.
Jens Ludwig: And I think this idea that police departments could do a better job, defined as both doing a better job at preventing gun violence, but also doing a better job at treating community resident more fairly and humanely.
Paul Rand: Over the course of last year, the task force developed 16 recommendations to reduce the collateral harms of law enforcement. Things like revising qualified immunity, prohibiting neck restraints, and no knock warrants, but of all of the recommendations, one rose to the top.
Jens Ludwig: One of the things that has been among the biggest surprises to me as I’ve started to try and better understand law enforcement in the United States and how you make it more effective and humane, one of the biggest surprises to me is how much variation there is across the police departments and within police departments over time in how they do what they’re supposed to do.
Paul Rand: The number one recommendation is to develop national training standards with an emphasis on deescalation. There’s far too much variation in how departments handle training, which leads to some departments focusing on more militaristic models of policing.
Jens Ludwig: I think it speaks to why the US department of justice is involved in doing things like consent decrees with departments, right?
Paul Rand: Rather than stepping in after the fact, the task force recommends that the federal government enforce the same training standards across the entire country and use that unified training to specifically focus on deescalation techniques.
Jens Ludwig: I think maybe some people have this idea that just police departments are just incapable of changing. If you think that police departments are intrinsically as they are and can’t change, then you might think that just defund or abolish is the only thing that you can do. And I think there are very much open questions about which specific departments can change and how much and how you get them to change, but I think as a categorical statement, there are lots and lots of examples around the country of police departments that have changed a fair amount.
Paul Rand: And of course, he believes that a data-driven approach by departments is going to be key.
Jens Ludwig: I think it’s fair to say that there is no police department in the country that has fully figured this out yet, but I think many experts would look at LAPD and NYPD and see that they shifted to data-driven management much earlier and much more rapidly than I think many other police departments around the country have done. You can see the result. It’s like in New York city... Again, there are lots of challenges that we still have in New York city, but what we’ve seen in New York is crime go down and incarceration go down at the same time. And in LA, what we’ve seen is murders go down while public support of the police has gone up.
Jens Ludwig: Most people living in most American cities would be very happy to live in a world in which serious violent crime was going down, incarceration was going down, and public perceptions and support for the criminal justice system were improving. I think the national policy conversation would make you think that those different goals are intrinsically in opposition, and I think what we can see from some case studies around the country, that it is possible to make the criminal justice system more fair and more effective at the same time.
Paul Rand: As we said, these two approaches, social programs and law enforcement, are two sides of the same coin, and Ludwig says they really are connected in important ways.
Jens Ludwig: There are reasons to believe the social policy approach, and at least a functioning criminal justice system, are complimentary, not substitute approaches. And a complimentary approach is like what you might call street outreach or violence interrupter approaches, where when you can start to see an argument escalating, you have a street outreach worker or a violence interrupter around who can step in and help diffuse that and deescalate that. Why criminal justice system, or at least a functioning criminal justice system be a compliment to that? When you talk to people who do violence interruption work, one of the things that they tell you is like, when they’re trying to talk someone down, what I hear that the argument of the violence interrupter or the street outreach worker is making is often not based on an appeal to altruism, but rather an appeal to self-interest.
Jens Ludwig: “You don’t want to spend the next 20 years of your life sitting in jail or prison because of that guy over this. It’s not worth it.” Right? Now, in a system where something like 5% of nonfatal shootings resulted in arrest, as unfortunately is the case here in Chicago right now, that makes that kind of self-interested appeal more difficult. We obviously need to greatly improve the fairness of the criminal justice system, reduce all of the racial biases that we can see, make the system more effective and humane, but you do need some sort of well-functioning criminal justice system for things like... I mean, I’m just saying that to you, what street outreach workers and violence interrupter organizations say to us, right? Their view is like, if the penalty is nonexistent, it makes street outreach and violence interruption hard, right? So, that doesn’t mean that we need to be throwing people in prison for life over whatever, but we need some sort of functioning criminal justice system, ideally, a better one that we have today.
Paul Rand: There has been a critique of the Crime Lab, that it shouldn’t be focused on the individual behaviors and psychology of offenders and that they should be spending all of their effort on looking at systems like the police and the criminal justice system, which as the argument goes, are the true root cause of these problems. I ask Jens what he thinks of that criticism.
Jens Ludwig: I think I reject the premise of the question or the criticism, if that makes sense. I reject the idea that you can either address structural root causes or you can implement social programs that reach individual kids and young people in the neighborhoods where they’re living. I don’t actually see why anyone would view this as an either or rather than a both and. Because I think one of the reasons that I think it’s a both and is because I can see our research centers, the Crime Lab and the Education Lab together, if we can do both, I don’t see why society itself can’t do both as well, right?
Jens Ludwig: So, if you look at on the structural root cause side, we’ve been doing a bunch of systems level work, like working with the Chicago public schools, there’s a subset of kids attending, but some cities call them alternative high schools or second chance high schools, CPS, the Chicago public schools calls them option schools, and the graduation rates for kids going to the option schools in Chicago in recent years have been on the order of like 30 or 40%, depending on how you define it exactly, and nobody would want their kids to have a three in 10 or a four in 10 chance of graduating from high school, right? Part of what we’ve been doing as part of that is we’ve set up structures where we can hear from the students who are going to option schools and their families about what additional supports they think would be the most important things.
Jens Ludwig: And in response to that, one of the things that we heard is a concern that a key reason that lots of older kids who have dropped out and then have trouble coming back to complete their schooling, one of the reasons for that is the difficulty juggling school and the need to make money on their own. And in response to hearing that, as part of this work, we’re now working with CPS to figure out how to solve that. To just give you a couple other examples, it’s like we’re working with the Illinois Attorney General’s office as part to implement some aspects of their consent degree with the Chicago Police Department. We’ve worked with the city to build a gun violence dashboard that’s helping street outreach and violence interrupter organizations all over the city do what they’re doing to try and help their communities better. And I’ve been working myself for 30 years to understand how policy can help desegregate neighborhoods and schools, right?
Jens Ludwig: We’ve been doing a lot on the structural side, but at the same time, right, at the same time, we can also see that when we work with local schools to implement programs like youth guidances, Becoming A Man, the result is kids who participate in the programs, their high school graduation rates go up, right? I don’t see myself why anyone would be against that. And in fact, when I go out and I talk to principals and teachers and families on the south and west sides of Chicago, I myself have never heard anyone out in the communities say that they want less access to things like Becoming A Man, or choose to change or, or READI, right? And so I think when I look at this, I don’t see why we would get into this mindset that there’s this false either or dichotomy between addressing structural root causes and implementing these social programs as well.
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In new book, behavior geneticist debates the role genetics play in social inequality
Examining the 17 goals that could achieve a sustainable global future
UChicago-Argonne scientist explores more sustainable ways to make use of water
UChicago president discusses his field-defining research, how universities can support scientific discovery
Economist’s how-tos on changing behavior—from eating better, exercising more and saving money