To reduce crime, we must support families and provide opportunities for children
The things that make communities safer from crime lie beyond the criminal justice system: they lie beyond the jurisdiction of law enforcement, courts, corrections. The criminal justice system can react to crime and can provide crime control; it cannot prevent it from happening in the first place.

True crime prevention must focus on the root causes of crime and victimization and be committed to a social development approach to addressing crime and safety. 

Both research and experience into antisocial behaviour indicate that the roots of crime and victimization lie, in large part, within the social and economic environment of the child.

Put in its simplest terms, to reduce crime and victimization, we must support families and provide opportunities for children from the very beginning of their lives. 

The literature on crime prevention is very rich and convincing in the approach that must be taken if we are to be truly committed to reducing crime and making our communities safer.

Crime prevention through social development initiatives attempt to build upon what we know and believe about the social and economic factors that are most closely related to crime. Social development programs hold the most promise of effectively addressing those factors that are strongly correlated with persistent delinquency and criminal activities among adults, namely:

  • family violence
  • lack of supervision from parents or caring adults; parental rejection, and lack of parent-child involvement
  • difficulties in school
  • neighbourhoods characterized by poor housing, lack of recreational, health and educational facilities
  • the disintegration of social supports
  • peer pressure
  • youth unemployment and blocked opportunities
  • poverty and inequality

There is a growing consensus that the following components are key to developing an effective crime prevention strategy:

Early education

Possibly the most well-known example of early childhood programs cited in the literature is the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, developed and implemented in Ypsilanti, Michigan, by Drs. David Weikhart and Lawrence Schweinhart in 1962. This variation of the Head Start program was designed to study the long-term effects of participation versus non-participation of three- and four-year old, disadvantaged children and their families in a quality preschool program.

These children have been studied, along with their families, throughout their childhood and into their adult years, the latest review being at age 27. 

The findings consistently show that early education provided by skilled workers develops a sense of responsibility and initiative. The children involved in this program have been five times less likely than those who did not take part, to be involved in criminal behaviour. They are more likely to finish high school; and less likely to be dependent on social assistance.

In a seminar sponsored by the National Crime Prevention Council in Ottawa (September, 1996), Dr. Weikart, in speaking of the Perry Preschool Project, stressed that stimulating creativity, responsibility and a feeling of being in charge is essential in early education. Other approaches that use less skilled staff will not necessarily have this dramatic effect on a child’s future well-being. His research further shows that there is a huge increase in brain energy from ages three to ten. This is a crucial time for learning and it is the time when children and families most need the help and support of a quality early intervention program.

Preparing and supporting parents

The need to prepare and support parents throughout every developmental phase of their child’s life is well established. 

The prenatal period 
In the prenatal phase, the health and well-being of the unborn child is affected by the experiences of the expectant parent(s), the ability of the parent(s) to meet the needs of the developing baby, and the social and economic situation of the parent(s).

Optimal development in the prenatal period is greatly promoted when expectant mothers receive adequate nutrition; abstain from alcohol, drugs and smoking; and live free from abuse. Healthier babies ensure healthier children who in turn have increased opportunities for success in school. School success is a significant protective factor in pro-social development.

What do parents need during this pre-natal period? 
They need opportunities to increase their awareness and understanding of the importance of pre-natal care; they need to enhance their ability to meet the needs of their baby; they need to be encouraged to be equal partners in parenting. This can be done through community-based support programs for parents; for example, home visiting, fathers’ groups, pre-natal classes, cooking classes for expectant parents; by establishing outreach to high risk parents, such as mentoring with an experienced parent.

At birth

The birth of a child presents challenges to all parents. Bonding between parent and child is affected by the maturity levels of the parents; their understanding of child development and the needs of babies; the parents’ degree of isolation from social support; and their socio-economic environment. Often referred to as the “invisible years”, the first three years of a child’s life may involve little or no contact with individuals and systems outside of the family.

What is needed during these early years following the birth of a child?
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, the most effective programs take services to the family. Initiatives that include a home visiting component have proven to be successful in decreasing isolation and improving conditions and outcomes for children. According to the needs of the family, support is intensified and continued.

Home visiting programs are proving to be successful in decreasing isolation; providing education regarding child development and understanding the needs of babies; providing practical supports as needed and in contributing to the early identification of problems. Home visiting programs have shown significant reductions in child abuse and parent/child attachment failures (Fuddy, 1992; Landy et al., 1993).

As well, community-based supports are needed to complement home visiting programs. Some examples of successful community-based programs are family drop-in centres; peer support initiatives and mentoring.

The toddler/preschool years

Anger and frustration are experiences common to all children and adults. These emotions are not “good” or “bad”, Learning to have their feelings acknowledged while at the same time learning non-aggressive ways to express them is one of the challenges of this period of development. Children who witness violence in their homes and communities learn that threats and intimidation seem to be the way to resolve conflicts. They learn about abuse of power and control within relationships. Add to this violence in the media and children can become further desensitized to violence.

What is needed during these years?
Quality child care and education benefits the cognitive and social development of all children. For children experiencing accumulated risks, early child care and education which involves both the child and the parents can serve as a strong protective factor. 

Programs should also be available that provide more intensive interventions for children and parents. To help children “unlearn”aggressive behaviours and develop respectful and caring ways of relating, child care providers must be provided with adequate resources.

Reducing inequality, and in particular, child poverty

There is general agreement that reducing inequality is a factor in reducing crime. Reducing child poverty stands out as a significant factor in reducing crime internationally. The harmful effects of poverty in childhood often linger long into adulthood. It cannot be concluded, however, that “poverty causes crime”.

The evolution of a connection between actual criminal behaviour and an individual’s life experiences and social and economic circumstances is far too complex and unpredictable to be attributed to cause and effect. Poverty [for example] does not cause crime–if it did, then it would be women, not men, making up 98% of the prison population in Canada. If poverty caused crime, white collar crime such as embezzlement or computer fraud and environmental crimes by industry would be non-existent (John Howard Society of Alberta, 1995a, p. 36).

The three components that I have highlighted–early education, parent education and support, and reducing inequality and in particular, child poverty–are especially focused on the early years and emphasize the social imperative to “begin well at the beginning”. The same emphasis needs to be there for the transitions that youth face in their lives.

What I have tried to emphasize is that there is a solid body of knowledge and evidence about what works well. What remains is to do the things that will make a difference.

Carol is the former executive director of the BC Council for
Families and past president of the BC Coalition for Safer Communities.
This article first appeared as “Preventing Crime by Investing in Families” in Family Connections (Winter, 1998), published by the BC Council for Families