How Community Involvement Can Reduce Crime

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community involvement

Drivers of crime are complex and members of communities with high crime rates may feel trapped between violence and law enforcement. For those caught in the middle, there are ways to strengthen your community and reduce crime while also minimizing risk to yourself and others.

Every community is different but, in general, members of the community can help reduce crime by developing their own nonviolent communication and emotional regulation skills, mentoring youth, supporting community centers, and helping to prevent substance abuse.

To be sure, there are many different aspects of community life that one could focus on to help reduce crime. However, the areas listed above have been identified by researchers as being closely correlated with crime and are straightforward ways to get involved for everyday citizens.

Recognizing that not every community has the same relationship with law enforcement, this post is designed for those seeking to work directly with their communities and not necessarily partner with local police departments.

Step 1: Self Development

Street Civics generally subscribes to the idea that any community involvement should start with an individual’s personal wellbeing. In other words, if you want to improve your community, start by improving yourself. Like emergency instructions on airplanes that tell you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others, you’ll need to be conscious of your own wellbeing first before helping improve the wellbeing of those around you.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you probably don’t see yourself as part of the crime problem in your community. And you may be right. So, you may also be tempted to think that if you want to reduce crime (or change any community behavior for that matter) that you have to change everyone else. However, this is a mistake that even the greats have made.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi

The concept of changing yourself in order to change your environment is a profoundly ancient idea. In fact, the concept can be found in some of humanity’s oldest texts like the Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, and other spiritual texts. 

This concept has recently re-emerged as an area of interest for philosophers, theologians, scientists, and many others in the modern era. Excitingly, there is now even a viable mathematical theory that suggests your internal worldview impacts the shape of your external environment.

What does this mean exactly for those trying to reduce crime in their communities?

It means that in order to change the behaviors of those around you, you will need to embody and radiate the qualities you would like to see in your community. The more serious you are about changing your community, the more serious you should contemplate this question – what it is you’d like to see in yourself and others?

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

Mahatma Gandhi

To truly set about this task of improving yourself and the community, consider meditation as a tool to both examine yourself and to deal with any stress or pressure.

Research has shown that mindfulness meditation is positively correlated with your health and social wellbeing. If you’d like to learn more about meditation and how it can improve your community, read more here.

Beyond meditation, it’s a good idea to begin honing a few skills that are useful in engaging with your community. Nonviolent communication is, perhaps, one of the best skills one can begin learning to improve their communities. Here’s an excerpt from our article on social wellbeing that captures this concept.

“Nonviolent communication is a theory founded on the idea that all humans have the ability to be compassionate and empathetic. More to the point, the theory indicates that all human behavior is an attempt to fill basic human needs and that those needs are never in conflict – only the strategies to meet those needs are in conflict. Therefore, with the right communication methods, we can reduce conflict in our relationships. Marshall Rosenberg is often thought of as the founding father of nonviolent communication and puts forward four components to effective interactions: observation, feelings, needs, and requests. Paying attention to these four components of social interactions and practicing nonviolent communication has been proven to improve social cohesion.”

If you want to know more about nonviolent communication, I suggest starting with Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships.

Crime Prevention Programs for Youth

Youth development is a big part of a community’s wellbeing and in an ideal world, everyone would be concerned with the general welfare of youth. A big part of life at an early age is school life and that’s usually the best place to start in preventing crime.

Links between turbulent school life and crime are well-documented. Likewise, links between academic success and adult role models are also well-documented. In order to prevent criminal behavior in youth, then, communities can focus on keeping kids in schools and guiding their after-school activities.

Truancy, in particular, has been linked with a higher likelihood of criminal involvement in a number of studies. Research conducted by the Chicago Tribune in 2013, for example, showed that out of the 182 males surveyed in Illinois youth detention facilities, 135 were labeled ‘chronic truants’ at some point. Researchers also noted that 60% of the detained youth couldn’t read at a third-grade level.

The 2013 survey illustrates a much larger issue in the U.S. that many have begun calling the “school to prison pipeline.” The term denotes the tendency for harsh school punishments to begin funneling children towards prisons. 

The “pipeline” refers to a typical pattern of escalating behaviors and consequences that can push kids onto the street and into crime because of hostile school environments or expulsion. The social pattern has been understood to disproportionately affect African-Americans, Hispanics, other minorities, and disadvantaged youth.

There are many after-school programs that can help create safer environments but, perhaps, one of the most successful programs is by Youth Guidance – a nonprofit out of Chicago. Youth Guidance has had phenomenal results with their programs. Specifically, the organization’s Becoming A Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW) programs have given youth much-needed support.

The program has been studied in Chicago public schools and has been shown to reduce violent arrests by as much as 50%! The program also reduced total arrests by as much as 35% and increased graduation rates among participants by as much as 19%. 

Those results are truly remarkable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concepts taught during these programs are similar to those discussed in the section above on self-development. Students report clearer thinking and better responses to social situations. If you’re looking for a model to engage youth, take a look at Youth Guidance.

Do Community Centers Reduce Crime?

When thinking about getting involved in the community to help reduce crime, many people consider volunteering with a community center. But, do they actually work?

Community centers have been shown to reduce crime. One 20-year study conducted in 264 cities by New York University showed that in a city with 100,000 residents every 10 new nonprofits reduced the homicide rate by 9%, lowered violent crime by 6%, and decreased property crime by 4%.

The study looked at community nonprofits focused on one of five program themes: crime prevention, neighborhood development, substance abuse prevention, job training, and youth programs. Researchers noted that community-led efforts to reduce crime have been overlooked in literature focused on the decline of violence in the U.S. The authors stated, 

We consider the proliferation of community nonprofits to be among the most important shifts to occur in urban communities over this period, altering the physical and social environment in ways that have not been adequately studied at the national level. Strong social theory on community life suggests that local organizations are a core component of the informal networks that are essential to generating social cohesion and informal social control, and thus limiting violence (Sampson 2012). 

However, these revelations are not often included in policymaking, sociology research, or public safety programs. While government leaders have been slow to recognize the role of community centers in reducing crime, volunteers at local organizations can rest easy knowing that they are making a difference.

Readers may be curious about the impacts of poverty alleviation on crime. The link has been well studied, but the relationship is complex and varies from community to community. No doubt, though, that poverty alleviation is another important area to focus on volunteer efforts. One can safely assume that workforce development and substance abuse prevention are two sure-fire ways to “feed two birds with one seed” by reducing both poverty and crime. 

If you’re looking for more on community involvement, check out our post – What is Community Involvement: Five Good Examples.

Substance Abuse and Crime

Helping to prevent substance abuse is the most specific recommendation we’ve included because alcohol and other substances play a major factor in violent crime.

Research has revealed clear links between substance abuse and violence. For example, studies show that substance abuse is a factor in 40-60% of domestic violence cases. Communities can reduce crime by ensuring legal substances are consumed responsibly and by improving access to alternative coping mechanisms or treatment.

It’s worth noting that the research around substance abuse and violence consistently shows that light or responsible use of substances has no effect on crime. Only when alcohol or drugs are used heavily does the risk of crime go up. 

For instance, one study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research showed that heavy drinkers were 2.67 times more likely to be involved in gun violence than nondrinkers. Light drinkers, however, showed no significant difference in the likelihood they would be involved in gun violence from those who refrained from drinking altogether.

Ensuring responsible alcohol and substance consumption can be tricky. Total prohibition in the U.S. during the 1920s amounted to a total disaster and major escalation of organized crime.

There is ample research, however, on what types of policies can help reduce alcohol and substance abuse. Studies have shown that a higher alcohol tax, for instance, would reduce alcohol-related deaths by about 35%, traffic fatalities by 11%, sexually transmitted diseases by 6%, overall violence by 2% and crime by 1.4%.

For community members who may not control the levers of government though, there are other effective ways to get involved. The first is to help those around you. Addressing substance abuse is not easy. It’s a delicate issue to handle and, if you are trying to help a friend or loved one, great care and patience are needed.

If you’re in the U.S. please see the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline for more resources.

If you think the problem is broader than those in your immediate circle, you may want to consider lending support to local programs. Or consider starting your own program. To get started, check out the Prevent MedAbuse’s 7 Strategies for Effective Community Change Toolkit. While the toolkit is geared toward prescription medications, the methods could work just as well for non-prescription drugs.

Those looking to get involved in these programs, though, should keep in mind that substance abuse is a health issue. People suffering from addiction should not be villainized or made to feel criminal for falling into addictive behavior. In fact, stirring up feelings of guilt or shame may cause these individuals to use more substances.

In the same way that we’d want people with an infectious disease to seek treatment and feel safe while doing so, we’d also want those suffering from addiction to seek treatment and feel safe in doing so. Therefore, those suffering from substance abuse should be treated with compassion, understanding, and support for the best possible outcomes for all.


Looking for more on community involvement? Check out our post on What is Community Involvement: Five Good Examples.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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