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May 23, 2019

Bringing Science to Crime Prevention

Reuel S. Amdur

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Irvin Waller. Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime: Lanham, MD, 2019

Waller has produced a powerful book. Not only does it spell out in some detail how all levels of government can reduce violent crime, it also demonstrates that prevention approaches can actually save considerable money that now goes for the reactive criminal justice system. 

The book spells out the essential elements for implementing an effective preventive approach.  It lists as item one the establishment of a permanent violence prevention board.  However, inadequate description is given to the role of such a board.  To my mind, the board needs to have the power to direct money.  Crime is not the salient focus of every organization and agency.  Coordination on crime involves some way of creating buy-in, and providing funding is one way of encouraging such coordination.  Let me illustrate.

In the book Waller speaks of hospital emergency departments as one place that could be pinpointed.  In a CBC interview, he indicated how that might play out.  When gang members show up in emergency with gunshot injuries, social workers located there 24/7 would engage them with an offer of help to leave gang life.  Hospitals have tight budgets, and, while they are not against crime prevention, it is not their most salient concern.  To get buy-in, provision of targeted funding would be helpful.  Money can be a powerful tool for breaking down silos.

He states that any successful effort must rely on knowledge of things that have worked elsewhere and on a diagnosis of the particular situation and a plan to address it.  The plan needs to involve a mobilization of players able to deal with the causative factors and knowledgeable personnel to staff the prevention board.

Of course, any program requires adequate funding to carry out its function.  One of Waller’s examples of a successful program gone wrong was Alberta’s.  The provincial government cut it as a cost-saving measure.  It was able to do so because of a lack of a concerned constituency. 

While Waller cites a number of successful programs, he identifies Glasgow’s as one that has been highly successful and influential, cutting the murder rate in half.  Police called in the potential trouble-makers—the usual suspects, as the crime fiction would have it—and warned them that they were on the radar.  “The social development component included early childhood education, parenting support, youth conflict resolution in schools, street outreach, rehabilitation and treatment, and intervention in hospitals to mentor people out of violence.”

At the end of the book, the author pleads with people, especially politicians and other decision-makers, to become knowledgeable about prevention and to act on it.  There is one thing about the book, however, that could be a turn-off: a tendency to oversell.  It purports to provide the way to “ending violent crime.”  It is no such thing.  Rather, it is an approach to seriously curtailing it, while at the same time saving lives and reducing suffering.  The “ending violent crime” mantra may raise people’s suspicions.  Is this a gimmick?  Tell it, yes, but tell it straight.  Exaggerating is neither necessary nor useful.

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