Alex Kent / Getty Images

20 Strategies for Reducing Crime in Cities

John K. Roman

October 10, 2023

Complements, not substitutes, to policing

Complements, not substitutes, to policing

It is easy to despair of crime in cities. But there is much to be learned from recent history. Two decades of research on the almost everywhere, almost all-at-once, Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s —  when violence in America dropped by half in a single decade — finds dozens of evidence-based reasons why crime declined. And overwhelmingly, that research finds that the most effective crime-fighting tools were not explicitly about fighting crime. 

In the 1990s, crime declined, among other reasons, because more people had access to Medicaid, better medicines for behavioral health became available, less cash was in circulation and fewer people were poisoned by environmental toxins. And, more evidence-based programs and practices were used in schools, workforce development and public health. Yes, mass incarceration and new policing strategies played a role, but the strongest evidence suggests they explain perhaps one-quarter of the crime decline

What these explanations have in common is strong empirical evidence and a focus on classical prevention based on the idea that supporting people and strengthening communities is the surest path to widespread safety. There are hundreds of solutions — market-based solutions, medical solutions, structural solutions and behavioral nudges — that can meaningfully reduce the risk of crime and violence without expanding the criminal justice system. Instead of responding to problems, these solutions reduce risk factors and risk conditions and promote resiliency, stopping crime and violence before they happen.  

But prevention does not work a la carte and there is no silver bullet, only the hard work of gradual improvements and the challenge of waiting for the longer-term positive outcomes to emerge. Quantity has a quality all its own, and the more of these strategies that are employed, the better the outcomes.

In that spirit, here are 20 crime-reducing strategies that strengthen people and communities and are supported by solid social-science research to reduce crime. The list is here to draw you in.: There are more evidence-based approaches than even this, and even more promising programs being tested. We do not have to settle for 20th-century criminal justice. The vast breadth of available prevention policies and programs should vanquish any one-dimensional view of crime reduction. 

A call for non-criminal justice solutions is not a call to defund the police in disguise. These are complements to, not substitutes for, law-enforcement-led strategies. There are numerous evidence-based law enforcement-focused mechanisms that should be a critical part of any public safety proposal. But, if the arc from Michael Brown to George Floyd taught America anything, it is that we must move beyond law enforcement working in isolation to find justice and safety.

The 20 Strategies

1. Help Victims of Crime 

There is far too little support for victims of crime, even though it is the most obvious place to start. Prior victimization — of a person or a place — is the top predictor of future victimization. Supporting people who have been victimized from being victimized again — through social supports and target-hardening — has enormous potential for positive change.  

2. Reduce Demand for Law Enforcement

A central reason why law enforcement does not prevent more crime or solve more crimes is that they are too busy doing things that accomplish neither objective. If the police were called less often for unproductive reasons, there would be less under-policing — and less over-policing as well. If cities and towns set the explicit goal of having people call the police less often, law enforcement would be more efficient at taking on the tasks that remain.

3. Fixing Distressed Spaces

There is a wide body of evidence that shows that places poison people more routinely than people poison places. Crime does not result from “areas” of the “inner city” being high risk, but rather from a few very small, very bad places. Concentrated efforts to improve contagious places can build resiliency across neighborhoods. 

4. Making Crime Attractors Less Appealing 

Certain places attract and generate crime — schools, the built environment and bars being at the top of the list. More often than not, careful planning and implementation of best practices in situational crime prevention can reduce the harms they unintentionally generate and, in the case of schools and transit, unlock their potential for guardianship.

5. Scientific Supports for Law Enforcement 

Police in the United States would benefit from increased reliance on civilians in two realms: translating scientific evidence into practice, and increasing their reliance on civilian analysts to study local policing practices. In particular, if law enforcement was aided by more civilian analysts who were better trained, crime would be reduced while the footprint of policing was reduced.  

6. Improving the Job Market and Job Training

The relationship between jobs and crime is far more complex than in the popular imagination — higher national-level unemployment rates, for example, do not seem to increase violence. But targeted programs can have large effects. Integrating social and emotional skills training into employment training for young people has solid evidence of effectiveness as does employment planning for people returning from prison and transitional jobs for high risk people

7. Facilitate Neighborhood Non-Profits

In his excellent book ”Uneasy Peace,” Professor Patrick Sharkey reports on a study that found that for each 10 additional nonprofits in a given city, the violent crime rate is reduced by 14% (in the study period between 1990 and 2013). It should come as no surprise that access to more and better services has positive effects. Local government can aid the development of these local assets by providing funding for hyper-local community projects. 

8. Make Jails and Prison Less Criminogenic

We have overwhelmingly designed our jails and prisons to prevent people from gaining the skills to work and maintain their sobriety when they go home, and cut them off from their most crime-reducing assets, their family and friends. Small investments in humanity yield large returns when jails and prisons are not designed to produce more crime.

9. Better Prepare People to Return Home from Prison

People returning from prison need specific supports to facilitate a successful transition – 82% of people released from prison are rearrested within 10 years. And the solutions are simple — leaving facilities with an ID, prescriptions, a place to stay, a way to get started. A goal without a plan is a wish — people should leave prison with a plan and the supports to implement that plan.

10. Fund Community-Based Violence Interruption

A growing body of evidence finds that credible messengers — individuals with lived experience — coupled with psychosocial services can prevent retaliatory violence and repeat victimization. But this is a new sector and will need time and space to learn and grow.

11. Use Technology to Reduce Violence

Professor Graham Farrell argues convincingly that increases in security technology (such as engine immobilizers and cameras) in the 1990s were the only universal explanation for the universal decline in crime. There is much more that can be done using technology without imposing on civil liberties: text message reminders for court and probation appearances, databases to maintain records on police officers with histories of abuse and anti-crime features on ordinary consumer products are just the start. 

12. Tackle the Causes and Consequences of Poverty 

Poverty drives crime and violence in numerous ways beyond a simple lack of income, through weakened social bonds. A number of important policies have been successfully piloted but not fully implemented by state and local government. These are the big-ticket items — child poverty tax credits, whole-school anti-bullying programs, expanding Medicaid — that have the biggest crime reduction benefits. But the benefits outweigh the costs for dozens of policies and programs

13. Fix Long-Standing Problems 

Problems often persist because they have high costs, a lack of immediacy and declining political constituency — but these perpetual problems are often the key risk condition causing crime in a place to persist. Unhealthy homes, lead paint and pipes, and under-resourced foster care all promote crime.

14. Shorten the Reach of the Criminal Justice System

Too many financial burdens are imposed on people with low risk to public safety, creating a cycle of debt and incarceration, the latter which increases violence through stigma, criminal capital accumulation and a disruption of social bonds. Removing those conditions by clearing old warrants and convictions, reducing toxic fines and fees and ending poverty traps would prevent crime.

15. Help Those with Substance-Use Disorders 

In the 1990s and 2000s, with trepidation, the justice system began treating substance-use disorders as a disease rather than a crime. Expansion in the broadest of these interventions – problem-solving courts and in-prison substance use treatment — largely ended more than a decade ago. Many extremely useful ideas have been piloted — trauma-informed care, motivational interviewing, treating withdrawal in prison — but few were ever taken fully to scale. Those foundations are ready-made to build upon. 

16. Support Programs for High-Risk Young People and Families

A lot of criminology is concerned with bending the criminal trajectory curve — to keep adolescents from accelerating their delinquency or failing to desist as they age — and a huge body of scholarship has contributed to numerous model programs. From prenatal programs, to social and emotional learning, to programs for high-risk adolescents, there is a tremendous base of knowledge.

17. Education

Improving education is its own crime-reducing category, but schools can facilitate crime reduction outside of schools. Reducing food insecurity, humanizing discipline and improving the safety of the school commute benefit everyone. 

18. Housing

Like education, housing is its own category beyond the scope of this essay. But there are housing solutions with specific crime-reducing benefits: permanent, supportive housing; transitional housing for young people leaving homelessness; and housing programs specifically for people who cycle through emergency services

19. Policy and Law

There are any number of laws and regulations that could be tweaked to meaningfully reduce crime and victimization. For example, higher taxes that specifically target the overuse of criminogenic products like guns and alcohol have been shown to reduce excess demand. 

20. Stop the Proliferation of Firearms 

The link between firearms and violence is ironclad — the more guns, the more crime. More guns explain much of the difference in rates of violence between the U.S and peer nations. Fixing violence in the U.S. without addressing the gun problem, which is to say ensuring fewer potentially dangerous people have easy access to weapons, is embracing half-measures.

Next steps  

The next step in strengthening people and communities is for the evidence-making industry to think beyond one intervention at a time. What we need is classical policy analysis that considers the choices faced by lawmakers in the presence of budget constraints. That means embracing cost-effective evidence-based prevention over expensive remediation, and programs that lift as many people as possible and leave behind far fewer than we do today. We need to embrace science and evidence, to think holistically and comprehensively and to stop thinking of crime and violence as a problem that can only be addressed through police and prisons. 

In medicine, we learn that our first line of defense is a catchall triage — some exercise, a better diet and more sleep are the cure for a vast array of simple problems before they become serious. In economics, we learn that simple nudges can motivate better choices. In public health, we can learn that a small early change in trend and trajectory today has enormous long-term benefits. All of these lessons await discovery in the public safety sector.