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What We're Reading

Greg Berman

June 26, 2024

Translating the latest research for the TL;DR crowd

Translating the latest research for the TL;DR crowd

To be honest, when we made the decision to devote our spring 2024 issue to the question “Does Evidence Matter?”, there was some anxiety at Vital City headquarters. Would readers appreciate a deep dive into debates among social scientists about the role that research should play in urban policymaking? Or would it induce a massive eye roll and a yawn from our readership?

But the question that really got Vital City HQ buzzing was: What would University of Virginia economist Megan Stevenson think? After all, it was Stevenson’s provocative essay challenging whether the evidence-based policy movement in criminal justice lives up to its own hype, “Cause, Effect and the Structure of the Social World,” that had sparked our interest in the topic in the first place. The contributors to our issue had a lot of positive things to say about Stevenson’s essay, but there was also spirited criticism of her conclusions.

We didn’t have to wait long for Stevenson’s response. Shortly after the issue appeared, she sent out a gracious tweet, saying “It is a great feeling to have almost two dozen brilliant scholars, activists and philanthropists write essays engaging with your research.”

The spirit of genial engagement continued in June, when Stevenson participated in a virtual event convened by the Niskanen Center, our partner in putting together the issue. One of the respondents to Stevenson on the panel — Nancy La Vigne, the director of the National Institute of Justice and a contributor to Vital City — said she had concerns with Stevenson’s methodology and her failure to focus on the lessons of implementation science, but thanked Stevenson profusely for writing the article, crediting it with “galvanizing the field.” According to La Vigne, sometimes those engaged in the pursuit of truth “need to show each other a lot of grace and agree to disagree.”

In addition to civil disagreement, another theme from the Niskanen panel was the importance of humility — there’s still a lot that we don’t know about what works to control crime. Modesty is also the theme of this edition of “What We’re Reading,” which focuses on several studies that are making relatively limited and provisional claims. As always, the rules of “What We’re Reading” are simple: We aim to summarize provocative research for nonacademic readers, not to assess methodology or validity. If you have suggestions for what should be included in future editions, please send them to

Pacifying problem places

The broken windows debate will probably never be resolved in part because the combatants can’t seem to agree on the terms of the debate. The research literature is decidedly mixed about whether aggressive low-level law enforcement is an effective crime-fighting intervention. But many (including me) argue that broken windows encompasses more than just a policing strategy; it also suggests a deliberate effort to address conditions of neighborhood disorder. Much of this work — picking up trash, improving street lighting, etc. — can be performed without any involvement of the police.

This study, published by Michael Zoorob and Daniel T. O’Brien in Criminology, looks at efforts to address “problem properties” — vacant, abandoned or neglected locations that have visibly deteriorated and become magnets for crime and disorder. In 2011, Boston formed an interagency task force that used civil enforcement to pressure neglectful residential landlords to take better care of their properties. The task force targets locations that have generated at least four complaints for crime, disorder and sanitation problems over the previous 12 months. Property owners are informed that their buildings will be scrutinized by code enforcement officers and that they will be held liable for the cost of visits by police and other city agencies to address violations and other on-site problems.

The research focuses on more than 400 properties investigated by the task force between 2011 and 2019. The results suggest that the intervention succeeded in incentivizing owners to either sell their properties to more diligent landlords or to invest additional resources in property management. These improvements translated into reduced 911 and 311 calls for crime and disorder around the properties. The findings offer a measure of encouragement to those who seek to focus the energies of government on high-volume targets as well as those who believe that there is a connection between a neighborhood’s physical plant and the behavior of residents and visitors.

The Bottom Line: “Problem property interventions reduced crime and disorder relative to comparable matched properties. They also led to property investment and landowner turnover, suggesting strengthened place management.”

Building “A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth” through problem-oriented community organizing

Launched in 2012 in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth utilizes an array of strategies in an effort to reduce youth crime without making arrests. With the help of research partners from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, the project team identified local hot spots of youth crime and victimization. For each hot spot, planners developed targeted interventions, including the creation of safe passages for students going to school, crime prevention through environmental design and the implementation of “Corner Greeters” — teams of local youth who sought to “take back” hot spots — focusing on the days and times shown by police data to be at highest risk from crime — by organizing activities and outreach on site. A team of researchers led by Charlotte Gill (and including Stockholm Prize winner David Weisburd) published the results of an evaluation of the Rainier Beach project in Criminology & Public Policy. A quasi-experimental design allowed the researchers to match each treatment hot spot with a similarly situated location outside of Rainier Beach’s boundaries. Looking at data from 2011 to the end of 2019, the study found that calls for service and reported offenses in the hot spots were modestly higher than in the comparison sites while treatment was active (although not statistically significant).

A community survey found modest improvements in perceptions of serious crime, police satisfaction and legitimacy in the short to medium term, but no statistically significant effects on social cohesion or collective efficacy.

The Bottom Line: “Strong community engagement may not be sufficient to realize crime prevention gains — coalitions need to build capacity and sustain effective coalition-building practices in order to move from engagement, interest and participation to collective action, even in communities where the conditions for engagement and building member capacity are strong.”

Do progressive prosecutors increase crime? 

The past decade or so has seen the emergence of a wave of “progressive prosecutors” across the U.S. This movement has been fueled, in part, by a dawning realization among activist NGOs and left-wing foundations that elected district attorneys are uniquely powerful players, given how decisions about which cases to prosecute and which sentences to recommend profoundly shape the outcomes that the criminal justice system ultimately achieves.

Dozens of district attorneys have campaigned, and been elected, on promises to improve fairness, reduce incarceration and address racial disparities. Not everyone has been happy about this development. In a number of places, including Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco, progressive DAs have faced resistance both from inside their offices and from external critics concerned that changes in prosecutorial policy (for example, increasing the use of diversion or decreasing the use of cash bail) would undermine public safety. Disgruntled San Franciscans launched a recall effort and ousted Chesa Boudin, successfully linking his administration to concerns about local crime and disorder.

On the flip side, advocates for progressive prosecutors argue that these officials are actually improving public safety. This argument rests on the idea that incarceration undermines community cohesion and family stability, which can lead to more crime. Advocates believe that by reducing the number of people sent to jail and prison (and investing in crime prevention alternatives), progressive district attorneys can help reduce crime. Larry Krasner, in Philadelphia, has been cited as a model of how progressive approaches can coincide with improvements in public safety.

In Criminology & Public Policy, criminologists Nick Petersen, Ojmarrh Mitchell and Shi Yan wade into the heated debate over the impact of progressive prosecutors on crime. Their study, which encompasses the largest 100 counties in the United States and 20 years of data, offers support for partisans on both sides of the divide. Comparing jurisdictions with progressive prosecutors to those with traditional prosecutors, they find that crime during the study period (2000-2020) dropped significantly in both, suggesting that less punitive prosecution strategies did not lead to a surge in violence. However, relative to counties with traditional prosecutors, “jurisdictions that changed to progressive prosecutors had 7% higher total index crime rates (driven by higher property crime rates.”

The Bottom Line: “These findings indicate that jurisdictions switching to a progressive prosecutor experienced relatively higher property crime than traditional jurisdictions, but in absolute terms, crime was declining.”

Scaring or Scarring?

Published in the Journal of Labor Economics, this paper by economists Anna Bindler and Nadine Ketel starts with a bold declaration: “Little is known about the costs of crime to victims.” They aren’t the only ones who feel this way — according to John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, “The lack of serious scholarship on crime victimization versus the volume of scholarship on deterrence is a little jarring.”

Bindler and Ketel’s contribution is to look at the effects of criminal victimization on labor market outcomes. Using Dutch police records, they were able to look at all victims of an offense reported to the police from 2005 to 2016. After a few exclusions, including individuals who were registered as a criminal suspect in the years before the victimization, the study population comprised more than 610,000 people.

Bindler and Ketel look at both short-term (“scaring”) effects and long-term (“scarring”) effects of being a victim of crime on earnings. They find that, one year after victimization, earnings decrease by up to 8.4% for males and 12.9% for females. These reductions are accompanied by an increase in the use of welfare, unemployment and other social benefits. Looking further out, over the course of four years, Bindler and Ketel find that, for most offenses, labor market outcomes do not return to previctimization levels.

Their conclusion isn’t surprising, but it is simple (and important): “Most victims suffer nontrivial losses.”

The Bottom Line: “For offenses that likely involve physical violence (assault, robbery), the effects are immediate and largest in the short-term, whereas for the other offenses (threat, burglary) there are more gradual changes following victimization. These labor market effects are in many cases accompanied by short-term increases in total and mental health expenditure … Our results reveal … noticeable gender differences. For females, the labor market effects are generally stronger, and the differences in effect sizes between offenses are larger with additional heterogeneities between non-domestic-violence and domestic violence cases.”