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Ideas in Action: More Non-Profits, Fewer Crimes

Gerard Torrats-Espinosa and Michael Jacobson

March 28, 2023

Translating policy into practice

Translating policy into practice

For decades, the United States’ crime-control strategy has been built mainly on policing. While this model has been credited with creating safer communities, high-profile incidents of police violence, such as the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and George Floyd, along with a growing body of evidence showing large racial disparities in police contact and misconduct, have led many scholars, policymakers and activists to question the ethical and public health implications of the approach.

Can other approaches create safer communities, while avoiding some of the harms of policing? Recent studies have provided support for the notion that the existence or strengthening of nonprofit neighborhood organizations — whether or not they are directly aimed at reducing violence — can have a dramatic effect, particularly on homicides.

Informal sources of social control make people likelier to share information and build trust.

Why? Strong evidence shows that such organizations can reduce violence and disorder by promoting engagement and collaboration among residents, local businesses and law enforcement. Unlike top-down force and other traditional forms of social control, these informal sources of social control make people likelier to share information and build trust, organize events and activities that promote cohesion and productive youth engagement or support other initiatives aimed at preventing crime at its roots. Neighborhood organizations can also help address underlying social issues that can contribute to crime, such as poverty and lack of access to education and job opportunities.

The idea that neighborhoods can regulate crime through such informal mechanisms has been studied in sociology and criminology for many years. Those studies have shown that community life is shaped by the complex system of friendship and kinship networks and associational ties rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes.

For every 10 nonprofit organizations added in a city with 100,000 residents, the murder rate fell by 9%, the violent crime rate fell by 6%, and the property crime rate fell by 4%.

Building on this scholarship, a 2017 study by Patrick Sharkey, Delaram Takyar and one of us, Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, found strong evidence to support the theory that neighborhood organizations can help reduce neighborhood crime. Examining citywide patterns of crime and nonprofit formation in 264 U.S. cities, the study documented substantial crime-reducing effects of nonprofit organizations that focus on neighborhood improvement, crime prevention, job training, youth programs and substance abuse prevention. During the period between 1990 and 2013, on average, for every 10 nonprofit organizations added in a city with 100,000 residents, the murder rate fell by 9%, the violent crime rate fell by 6%, and the property crime rate fell by 4%. 

While these are the national results, what happens when we look at New York City in particular? 

Using data from the city’s 77 police precincts from 2000 to 2016, we found significant declines in serious crimes in neighborhoods where community organizations took root or scaled up. 

Over this period, New York City saw its violent and property crime rates decline rapidly. The average police precinct counted 1,930 index crimes — murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand theft auto — in 2000 and just 1,326 in 2016, a decline of 604 crimes, or 32%. At the same time, the number of community nonprofits grew at a rapid rate, growing from an average of 23 to an average of 40 in each precinct. (Our data on community organizations come from the National Center for Charitable Statistics Data Archive; our crime data come from the NYPD; and our demographic data comes from the Census Bureau and the American Community Survey.)

Activities that are likely to promote social cohesion and social capital can then contribute to reducing crime and keeping the community safe.

This wasn’t just correlation. To determine whether the increase in relevant nonprofit activity was connected to the reduction in serious crimes, we used the same approach as in the 2017 study — a sophisticated methodology that isolates the causal effect of a given variable, in this case, nonprofit formation. When applied to our precinct-level data from New York City, this methodology allowed us to approximate how many crimes were reduced for each relevant community nonprofit that was formed in the precinct from 2000 to 2016. Among other activities, the types of organizations that we examined run youth development programs, promote community and neighborhood development, provide job training and housing search assistance to residents, facilitate the development of local businesses and assist formerly incarcerated individuals in their reintegration to the community. These are the kinds of activities that are likely to promote the social cohesion and social capital that can then contribute to reducing crime and keeping the community safe.

Results are summarized in the graph below. Each bar estimates how many index crimes were reduced from 2000 to 2016, on average, in the typical police precinct experiencing the average growth in nonprofit organizations indicated. 

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The creation of organizations focused on neighborhood improvement led to a total reduction from 2000 to 2016 of 204 index crimes on average in each precinct; crime-focused organizations reduced an average of 119 index crimes; organizations focused on workforce development reduced an average of 95 index crimes; youth organizations reduced 266 crimes; and organizations engaged in substance abuse prevention reduced an average of 62 crimes. 

Keeping in mind that the average precinct saw a decline in 604 index crimes from 2000 to 2016, the magnitude of these effects is substantial. For example, the reduction in 204 index crimes due to the creation and expansion of neighborhood improvement nonprofits represents about a third of the average decline in index crimes across precincts.

Translating Findings into Policy

How, then, should a city go about increasing the ranks of neighborhood nonprofit groups and improving their capabilities in order to drive down crime? There is, in fact, an extant model for making, monitoring and evaluating targeted investments in community-based organizations with the express purpose of improving public safety. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and CUNY have been using it for almost a decade.

In 2015, the former Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., having seized large sums of money from prosecuting international financial crimes, asked the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) to come up with and implement a strategy to invest some of the money — $250 million — in effective community-led crime-prevention programs in Manhattan. The initiative was dubbed the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, or CJII. ISLG supported the DA’s office by bringing to the project skills essential for the success of the investments: the research chops to identify projects that would be most likely to produce safety, the community connections to bring credibility to the venture and the expertise in nonprofit work to support the success of these investments. 

ISLG crafted a plan that first identified the Manhattan neighborhoods that most needed significant and sustained investment. It also created a specific funding portfolio covering a number of areas, such as crime prevention, support for crime survivors and diversion and reentry. The plan aimed to fill in gaps by creating new programs or organizations and expanding the capacity of existing nonprofit groups. 

A significant amount of funding went to programs that had nothing to do with crime but rather supported two-generation programming — aimed at strengthening bonds between young people and their parents. All the investments, recognizing the long and damaging history that trauma has played in the lives of so many residents of disadvantaged communities, required that programs follow what are known as “trauma-informed” approaches, which are designed to support healing, address the root causes of abuse and violence and reduce retraumatization.

Since 2016, 30 competitive solicitations have been launched, with more than $150 million going to community-based organizations primarily serving individuals in the four selected Manhattan neighborhoods: the Lower East Side, Harlem, East Harlem and Washington Heights.

The new Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, has funded a series of grants to community-based organizations focused on reducing community violence by engaging young people in programming and enhancing community spaces. This builds on the growing literature showing that such investments can be powerful crime-reduction tools. Most recently, Bragg announced a $9 million mental-health initiative that will fund neighborhood navigators to support individuals who have deep housing insecurity and/or serious mental health challenges. Including these investments and others in alternative-to-incarceration programs and for ISLG staff to manage CJII, more than $200 million has been spent or committed thus far in the initiative.

Aside from the actual funding that went to all these groups, CJII was structured to perform three other key tasks: measure and monitor performance of the funded programs; conduct rigorous and independent evaluations of program success; and build the structural, financial and governance capacity of organizations to ensure both that the funds are well spent and that the organizations have the potential to scale up in the future.

Independent evaluations are showing promising results. For instance, the Medical Legal Partnership program run by the Legal Aid Society and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Child and Family Institute helped connect students with disabilities and behavioral challenges to targeted educational supports, significantly reducing their risk of dropping out of school or having contact with the criminal justice system. The Career Readiness Training Program helped domestic violence victims achieve gains in hard and soft skills, leading to higher employment rates and the ability to break free from their abusive partners.

Increasing civil society capacity in the form of new or expanded nonprofit organizations leads directly to greater public and community safety. Fortunately, in New York City, there’s a rigorous model in place for building community-based capacity in those precise areas. While budgets here are orders of magnitude larger than most other municipalities, this is a model that, smartly adapted, can be used by local governments around the country to wisely invest scarce taxpayer dollars to improve communities and reduce crime.