Crime remains one of the most pressing public policy problems facing developed as well as developing countries. Each year roughly 500,000 people are murdered worldwide, with millions more the victims of other violent and property crimes. Long-term progress in reducing crime – especially violent crime – has been limited. While mortality rates from almost every leading cause have declined dramatically over the past 50 years, homicide rates in America now are about the same as they were in 1900.
The University of Chicago Crime Lab was launched in 2008 to use insights from basic science to help government agencies and non-profit organizations develop innovative new approaches to reducing violence, and work with them to test new innovations using randomized trials.
Basic scientific research has dramatically changed our understanding of what drives human behavior, what types of social conditions are the most important risk or protective factors for violence involvement, and how to manage and direct the activities of large-scale organizations – including the challenges of taking good ideas and making them work at scale. Government agencies are typically not equipped to translate basic science into policy innovations. We need to ensure that the frontier of policy innovation takes advantage of the frontier understanding from basic science of people and organizations.
Our other goal is to ensure that policymakers have adequate feedback about what their innovations are accomplishing so that policy approaches get better over time. While randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the standard for testing innovations in medicine, they remain far too rare in the areas of crime policy and social policy more generally. It is very difficult to identify the causal effects of policy interventions in the real world, a problem that can lead to unhelpful or even quite harmful policy decisions. Without good evidence, policymakers have no basis for allocating scarce public-sector resources across different potential uses other than hunches and politics.
By carrying out RCTs through public-private partnerships and focusing on priority questions for government decision makers, we seek to ensure and maximize the beneficial policy impact of our work. We believe policymakers are most likely to act on new social science evidence when they are involved directly as partners in the process of innovation and knowledge-production.
The Crime Lab is empirical rather than ideological in its approach to the problem of reducing crime and violence. Ongoing projects include collaborations with criminal justice agencies to address traditional crime-policy problems, such as work with the Chicago Police Department to identify and interrupt sources of crime guns, a project with the US Department of Justice to study the effects of one of the most scalable of all crime-control efforts (simply putting more police on the streets), and a partnership with the New York City Department of Probation and ideas42 to use insights from behavioral economics to reduce recidivism rates. But we are also trying to learn more about how different social policy approaches might also help in reducing crime and violence, such as projects with the Chicago Public Schools to reduce truancy and dropout, and with local non-profits like Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago to reduce the risk that youth engage in impulsive violence.