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Cost-effective delinquency prevention programs

A new report released by UW-Madison and the UW Extension synthesizes the latest research on what works in preventing and reducing juvenile delinquency.

The report, "What Works, Wisconsin: What Science Tells Us About Cost-Effective Programs for Juvenile Delinquency Programs," was requested by the Wisconsin Governor's Juvenile Justice Commission and the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance. An initiative of the UW-Madison schools of Human Ecology and Social Work, as well as the UW-Extension, the report's authors were Stephen Small, professor of human development and family studies; Arthur Reynolds, professor of social work; and Cailin O'Connor and Siobhan Cooney, both of the School of Human Ecology.

The investigators synthesized three decades of evidence on crime prevention programs from original research, research reviews and program registries sponsored by government agencies and professional organizations.

The most cost-effective programs had economic returns that far exceeded the initial investment. Among the programs with the greatest benefits were preschool programs, intensive home visiting, school-based socio-emotional learning, therapeutic interventions, and targeted diversion programs.

For example, high-quality preschool programs showed the greatest benefit, returning an average of about $10 for every dollar invested. Home visitation programs returned $5 for every dollar invested, and therapeutic interventions returned an average of $9 for every dollar invested.

"When they're done right, certain prevention and intervention programs reduce delinquent behavior," Small says. These programs are much less expensive than the costs associated with juvenile crime. The cost of housing a juvenile offender in Wisconsin correction facilities during 2004 was $68,255 - a figure projected to increase nearly 20 percent by 2007. This does not include costs to crime victims or to society for future adult crime and incarceration.

In contrast, the average cost per child for the most effective prevention programs was well under $10,000 per year, or 85 to 90 percent lower than in a corrections facility.

"Unfortunately, much of current practice is based on past customs and does not make use of the available scientific knowledge base," Reynolds says.

The report identifies research-based principles for effective delinquency prevention and juvenile offender programs. Generally, program effectiveness increased as a function of program length and intensity, comprehensiveness of services, and levels of staff training and compensation.

The report stresses the need to educate both policymakers and professionals about the importance of using evidence-based programs and the value of cost-benefit analysis in program decisions. The study also recommends that Wisconsin create policies encouraging cross-agency collaboration and funding for prevention. Specific proposals include: .

  • Formation of a state-level prevention commission:
  • Creation of a public/private endowment:
  • Issuance of state bonds to finance targeted prevention initiatives:
  • Development of a tax-deductible check-off box on the state income tax form.
"There are no easy, short-term solutions," Small says. "But these are doable strategies that can lower juvenile delinquency rates while saving the state millions of dollars in the long term through reduced need for government spending."

Adds Reynolds: "Based on the critical mass of evidence from economic and longitudinal analysis, we consider these types of programs to be the best bets for delinquency prevention in Wisconsin and in other states. It is our hope that Wisconsin will emerge as a national leader in the use of innovative, scientific and cost-effective youth policies and programs.".

Did you know?
A new report released by UW-Madison and the UW Extension synthesizes the latest research on what works in preventing and reducing juvenile delinquency. Cost-effective delinquency prevention programs

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