Crime Lab receives $1 million MacArthur Foundation award in recognition of creativity, impact

The University of Chicago Crime Lab is one of seven nonprofit organizations around the world to receive a $1 million award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in support of nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated creativity and impact in their work.

The award, called the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, will help the Crime Lab advance its mission of studying interventions to prevent violence. Founded in 2008, the Crime Lab is being recognized in part because it already has produced benefits disproportionate to the organization’s small size. Using “gold standard” research techniques, Crime Lab researchers have found that targeted tutoring and mentoring programs can help improve school outcomes and reduce violence among high school students.


“Our scholars continue to show that new ideas and outstanding research can make a positive impact in the world,” said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “I congratulate the Crime Lab for this recognition of its important efforts in building knowledge about violence prevention.”

Crime Lab leaders said they plan to use the award for new projects in Chicago and beyond.

“Our work is motivated by the idea that it is not a lack of innovation, good ideas or hard work that has hindered long-term progress on urban crime and violence and the related problem of school dropout, but rather it is a lack of rigorous scientific evidence about what works, for whom and why,” said Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy. “We launched the Crime Lab in 2008 to work in close partnership with nonprofits and municipal agencies on the front lines of these issues in order to begin to co-produce the scientific evidence necessary to help guide policy and practice.” 

“This generous support from MacArthur will allow us to be more nimble in seizing project opportunities that require a rapid response,” Ludwig said. “It will allow us to explore innovative research projects and gather evidence about their effectiveness.”

The Crime Lab partners with government agencies in Chicago and around the country to provide rigorous scientific evidence about the effectiveness of strategies to reduce crime and violence. One of Crime Lab’s main activities is the design and coordination of randomized trials of the sort that are standard in medicine but remain rare in the public policy area. The Crime Lab is a leader in using this approach, together with benefit-cost analysis and behavioral science, to help reduce the social harms that crime imposes on society. The ultimate goal is to inform policymakers about which strategies do the most social good for the cost.

Researchers at the Crime Lab have extended this empirical approach to a range of social challenges in Chicago, including gun crime, school dropout rates, and social programs to reduce violence involvement.

  • Crime Lab conducted an evaluation of Chicago’s “Becoming a Man” counseling/mentoring program (developed by Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago), finding that it decreased violent crime arrests of participants by 44 percent.
  • Crime Lab is collaborating with criminal justice agencies, including the Chicago Police Department to identify and interrupt sources of crime guns, and the U.S. Department of Justice to study the effects of placing more police on city streets.
  • Working with Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, the Crime Lab has evaluated One Summer Plus, an employment program for at-risk youth, finding that violent crime arrests among participants dropped by 51 percent.
  • Crime Lab is partnering with ideas42 to carry out several randomized trials in New York City that apply insights from behavioral science to improve probation outcomes and enhance the effectiveness of policing strategies.

According to the MacArthur foundation, the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions is not only recognition for past leadership and success but also an investment in the future. Crime Lab will use its $1 million MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions funding to establish an “innovation fund” to allow the organization to engage in new projects and explore innovative ways of conducting its research. A small portion of the funding will be allocated to forming an operating reserve.

Organizations that receive the award “share in common their demonstrated impact in improving the lives of people and communities,” said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. “MacArthur hopes these investments will sustain and expand the reach of that impact.”