Expert Commentary

Reducing juvenile crime and dropout rates: Field experiments in Chicago

A 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study assesses two Chicago programs aimed at reducing delinquency and high school dropout rates among teens.


Studies have long shown that a child’s environment influences—for better or worse—his or her opportunities for success later in life. Children from high-poverty areas generally fare worse across a wide range of measures, from income to health to psychological well-being. Policymakers, meanwhile, grapple with how to craft programs to level the playing field for low-income children and reduce problems such as teen violence and school dropout rates.

The 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study, “Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago,” drilled down beyond the obvious, institutional problems often associated with troubled teens–like class and economics–and looked at behavior. Specifically, they studied how “automaticity,” or a tendency to behave in unconscious ways learned out of habit, can lead to serious consequences. For example, an “automatic” response might be to storm out of a classroom in response to a teacher’s critical remark, or to throw a punch in response to an argument with a peer. Appearing tough may seem like a necessary survival tactic to a male teen living in a high-crime neighborhood where life is unpredictable, but this same behavior applied in other situations–like a job–can have bad consequences. The study tests the hypothesis that unconscious responses learned by impoverished children play a critical role later in life.

The paper’s authors—Sara B. Heller and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania—argue that automatic behaviors acquired in difficult social environments lead to bad outcomes, since children continue to apply them in environments like schools where different responses are rewarded. The researchers hypothesized that in order to improve outcomes for low-income children, programs should aim to train them to think before they act.

The researchers tested this hypothesis by running two separate randomized controlled trials (RTC) of two programs in Chicago aimed at helping low-income, high-school age children. The main common element between the programs, which were otherwise unique, was their attempt to reduce “automaticity” among young people. They both emphasize relaxation techniques, like deep-breathing, that help participants to slow down in stressful situations and thus exhibit less automatic behavior.

Key findings include:

  • The first trial, completed from 2009 to 2010, looked at the success of the program “Becoming a Man” and found that participation reduced arrests for violent crimes by 44 percent and for other crimes by 36 percent over the program year. Participants also performed better across a range of schooling measures, and the researchers estimate the program “could increase graduation rates by 3 to 10 percentage points.” In this trial, 2,740 seventh through tenth grade students from low-income communities were randomly assigned to after-school programs.
  • The second trial was offered to inmates at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. The study found that only 17 percent of participants in the program were readmitted within 18 months, compared to 75 percent of the inmates who did not complete the program.
  • The researcher emphasizes that the programs studied differ from other strategies targeting low-income youth because they “do not involve academic remediation, or vocational education, or job training, or paid temporary jobs or internships, or early childhood education, or cash or in-kind transfers to reduce poverty.”
  • The authors estimate the costs per participant were between $1,178 to $2,000 for the “Becoming a Man” program and approximately $60 per juvenile in the detention center program.

The researchers conclude that “the results imply a level of cost-effectiveness that is at least as favorable as almost any other crime-prevention intervention.” They caution that other components of the programs may have influenced the result of decreasing unconscious responses. In addition, they emphasize that that “automaticity” is not “the only way to explain disparities in dropout or delinquency or other behaviors that often look like they are driven by low levels of self-control or emotional intelligence.” Study authors conclude, however, by noting that the cost of the “Becoming a Man” program is relatively low–about $2,000 for the school programs and $60 for the juvenile detention programs–and the results are promising, suggesting that such targeted interventions are worth a try on a larger scale.

Related research: A 2016 Harvard study, “Equality of Opportunity,” finds that a child’s chances of thriving varies greatly from state to state in the U.S. and even across neighborhoods within a city. A 2016 study in Criminology used data from a multi-year, longitudinal survey of juvenile criminals to identify a group of adolescents that was able to stay out of the criminal justice system.


Keywords: dropout, juvenile crime, program evaluation, Chicago South Side, juvenile justice.

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