By Jann Ingmire
Photo by Robert Kozloff

We founded the Crime Lab in the belief that one of the key barriers to reducing violence is the limited current understanding of how to address the problem.”
—Jens Ludwig
UChicago professor and director of Crime Lab

Like many teens just entering high school, 15-year-old Jaylen was brash and becoming more of a handful at school and home. “He was talking too much in class and socializing with everyone, and he came home with this attitude,” said Jaylen’s mother, Samia Longino-Kennedy. 

But something changed when Jaylen was offered the opportunity to participate in a study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab that provided intensive tutoring and mentoring. “This program has definitely helped him, not just in algebra, but with other studies, too,” Longino-Kennedy said. “He now has a 3.7 grade-point average and wants a 4.0 GPA. That’s something he never thought he could do!”

The difference is that this program is studying the effects of intensive math tutoring and mentoring sessions, offered alone or together, in a randomized controlled trial conducted by the Crime Lab. Since its founding in 2008, the Crime Lab has made remarkable strides in studying ways to reduce violence. The group relies on “gold-standard” research techniques used to measure effective approaches in other scientific fields, especially medicine, but rarely seen for this type of social science.

This innovative research contributed to the Crime Lab receiving one of only seven 2014 MacArthur Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions from the MacArthur Foundation. The $1 million award, announced on Feb. 20, recognizes exceptional nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated creativity and impact. The Crime Lab will use the award to advance new projects and establish an innovation fund.

“We’ve focused on violent crime, particularly gun violence, because of the massive social harms imposed by violence in particular on the most disadvantaged communities in Chicago and every city around the country,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the UChicago Crime Lab and the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy. “What we are striving for is that in 10 or 20 years crime policy will be different—more effective, cost-effective and humane—because of the large-scale scientific research projects that we’ve done.”

The MacArthur Foundation award is the latest recognition for a program that has been lauded by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for its efforts to reduce violence and to motivate young people to continue their education by preventing them from getting involved in crime and violence in the first place. Recently released results from the Crime Lab study showed significant gains in math grades and attendance, and an increased likelihood of being on track for high school graduation among the young men participating in the programs. Beyond such interventions, the Crime Lab is making numerous inroads into violent crime prevention, including understanding the origins of guns used in crimes and testing crime-reduction tactics based on insights from behavioral economics.

“Our scholars continue to show that new ideas and outstanding research can make a positive impact in the world,” University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer said in a news release announcing the MacArthur award. “I congratulate the Crime Lab for this recognition of its important efforts in building knowledge about violence prevention.”

A calling to prevent violence

The University launched the Crime Lab in 2008 at a time when the Chicago Tribune was keeping a running count of the number of Chicago Public School students shot through the year. The death of UChicago graduate student Amadou Cisse in the fall of 2007 helped motivate the creation of the Crime Lab.

“A number of people from around the University decided we, the larger University community, needed to do something to be more helpful to the city (and all cities) in addressing this problem,” Ludwig said. “We founded the Crime Lab in the belief that one of the key barriers to reducing violence is the limited current understanding of how to address the problem.”  

One of the first interventions Crime Lab partnered with was the Becoming a Man (BAM) counseling/mentoring program, developed by the Chicago non-profits Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago. Crime Lab’s evaluation of BAM-Sports Edition, which addresses non-academic barriers to school success, found it decreased violent crime arrests of participants by 44 percent. 

“Our BAM counselors are very passionate about doing this work with the boys.  There is an equal passion from the UChicago Crime Lab,” said BAM founder Anthony Ramirez-Di Vittorio. “Yes, they look at the raw data, but there’s a connection. They care. We care about the same things, and that’s why it works.”

After running a pilot study in 2012-13 that combined BAM with intensive tutoring based on the model of Match Education, the Crime Lab partnered with Match to bring their approach to Chicago. Match Education, which started in Boston a decade ago, integrates tutoring into the school day as a class period. Each professional tutor works with two students at a time and they meet every school day. The main focus is on math. The tutors also follow up with the student’s parent or guardian at least once a week.

“Jens Ludwig felt that the results from Match tutoring programs in other cities needed to be tested in a randomized, controlled trial,” explained Alan Safran, president of Match Tutors. “None of the other programs had been tested in a trial.”

Helping youth get back on track

The tutors try to help students develop a love for the subject.

“My students always wonder why I actually enjoy math,” commented Luis Amaya, AB’13, who has been a Match tutor since last August. “I try my best to share how beautiful and interesting it can be. When they see me that excited, they are amazed and wonder why I get so excited, but since I’m ‘cool’ in their eyes, they are a bit curious about the whole thing.”

Another tutor was attracted to the program because she wanted the opportunity to work with teenagers in Chicago Public Schools. “The [research] study aspect of this program appealed to me, because, if successful, it could help push back against the notion that high school is too late in the game to help students get on track,” said Amy Brunner, AB’12.

The Crime Lab is also looking at other ways of using its scientific approach to help Chicago and other cities make progress in reducing crime and violence and addressing related challenges like high school dropout rates. “The MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions will help the Crime Lab expand its reach and impact beyond the city of Chicago and to be responsive to opportunities to work with policymakers and program providers in other U.S. cities also looking to improve outcomes for disadvantaged youth,” noted Roseanna Ander, executive director of the Crime Lab.

The Crime Lab also is currently working with police departments in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Baltimore to examine how guns used in crimes move around criminal networks. Another Crime Lab project is exploring how to improve “hot-spot” policing through behavioral interventions. This work, a collaboration with the New York Police Department and ideas42, a leading behavior economics think tank in New York City, seeks to learn more about how criminal offenders think and what behavioral economic interventions might be most effective for crime prevention.

“We’re data-driven, not ideological, about what the most promising elements of that portfolio will be,” Ludwig said. “We have focused on testing a wide range of strategies that include social policies that try to prevent youth from getting involved in crime and violence in the first place. That could include rehabilitation programs focused on ex-offenders, policing strategies that try to utilize lessons from behavioral economics to identify lower-cost, more effective tactics, and efforts to understand and disrupt underground gun markets.”

Originally published on February 20, 2014.