It found that offering behavioral therapy and some cash to men who were at high risk for committing violent crime reduces the future risk of crime and violence.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 7, 2022
Could you imagine a world where you could dramatically reduce the crime rate just by shelling out $1.50? While it sounds too good to be true, a new study by Chris Blattman, Margaret Sheridan, Julian Jamison and Sebastian Chaskel found that offering a few weeks of behavioral therapy and some cash to men who were at high risk for committing violent crime reduces their future risk of crime and violence, even 10 years after the intervention. In a Twitter thread shared last month, Blattman—an economist at the University of Chicago—shared that the seed for the study was planted in 2009 when he was hanging out with an acquaintance in Liberia named Johnson Borh, who showed him around the capital city of Monrovia.
Stick with me and I'll tell you about the most unexpected project of my life, & how it's changed the way cities tackle violence, from Bogota to Chicago.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
But if you want to jump to the paper, go here: https://t.co/w35kxWMsLf
cc: coauthors @sebchaskel @julianjamison @masherid pic.twitter.com/W1XiOEa26G
Blattman, who studies crime and violence, asked Borh to take him to visit the pickpockets, drug sellers and others living on the margins of society. "Every time we go to one of these shady places, there's a guy on the corner shining shoes or selling clothes out of a wheelbarrow or something else pretty basic. He spots Borh, gets excited and comes and gives him a hug. I ask 'how do you know Borh?' Each time the same response: 'I used to be like him,' and they'd point to the drug den or pickpockets, 'but then I went through Borh's program.' After the 6th time this happens, I make Borh tell me all about the program. It's called STYL: Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia," Blattman shared on Twitter.
I spend a week in a brand new Chinese-run clinic. I was their first patient ever. They were especially excited to give me their "ice helmet" — basically a cold pack that raps around your head.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
We now know I was an early H1N1 case, but at the time they thought it was pneumonia.
A week later I was feeling better but I couldn't leave the capital.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
Jeannie had headed up to the diamond & gold mines with our research assistants to run our studies (reintegrating ex-fighters from the war).
I study violence so I wondered, what could I do in the city? pic.twitter.com/Dln6KKz8j8
The Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia program offered at-risk men eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based method of dealing with issues such as anxiety. According to VICE, Borh adapted the therapeutic strategy to deal with issues like violence and crime. "He and his organization, NEPI, recruited the most dangerous men in the city. People who led lives of violence. They met in abandoned buildings, in groups of maybe 20 for a couple of hours a day," Blattman tweeted. During these meetings, the men would meet with a counselor and practice specific behavioral changes, like managing anger and exerting self-control.
But every time we go to one of these shady places, there’s a guy on the corner shining shoes or selling clothes out of a wheelbarrow or something else pretty basic. He spots Borh, gets excited, comes gives him a hug.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
I ask “how do you know Borh?” Each time the same response: pic.twitter.com/OVvb8X12xt
So I sit down with him in bar for 2 afternoons and we write out exactly what he does in the program for all 8 weeks of STYL.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
When Jeannie gets back from jungle mining adventures, I say “what does this look like to you?”
She’s a psychologist and says “oh, this looks like CBT.”
They’d also rehearse trying on a new identity completely unlike their past, by changing their clothes and haircuts and working to reintegrate themselves into mainstream society. Intrigued by what he saw, Blattman decided to run a big randomized controlled trial with 999 of the most dangerous men in Monrovia, recruited on the street, to formally study just how effective this kind of program could be. The 999 subjects were split into four groups. While some received CBT, others got $200 in cash. Another group got the CBT and the cash while the fourth group got neither to serve as a control group.
He and his organization, NEPI, recruited the most dangerous men in the city. People who led lives of violence.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
They met in abandoned buildings, in groups of maybe 20 for a couple of hours a day. Johnson trained counselors. They eked out a living on the program. pic.twitter.com/yChQrlMvUF
So we partner with NEPI. We go out, run a pilot, measure impacts, and it looks really promising— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
We also try giving the men $200, to see whether it helps them solidify the new identity & behaviors. We watch closely, because we're worried about overdoses, or men investing in guns
A month after the intervention, it was determined that both the therapy group and the therapy-plus-cash group were showing positive results. A year later, Blattman's group found that while positive effects on those who got therapy alone had faded a bit, those who got therapy plus cash were still showing huge impacts. So much so that crime and violence were down about 50%. Yet, Blattman didn't dare to hope that this impact would last a long time. Even the experts he surveyed predicted that the effects would steeply diminish over the years, as they do in many interventions. However, when Blattman tracked down the original men from the study 10 years later and reevaluated them, he was pleasantly surprised to find that crime and violence were still down by about 50% in the therapy-plus-cash group.
Huge impact! Crime, violence and antisocial behaviors down about 50% among those who get CBT+Cash. CBT alone seems to fade a little in impact over time.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
Most of the evidence points to the economic assistance helping men entrench the behavior changes, avoid a return to crime. pic.twitter.com/r6pXFLaWTk
According to Blattman, there were 338 fewer crimes per participant over 10 years. Given that it had cost just $530 per participant to implement the program, it cost about $1.50 for every crime avoided. But why did the combination of CBT and some cash work? Blattman believes the $200 given to each man enabled them to pursue a few months of legitimate business activity after the therapy ended. That facilitated a few extra months of getting to cement their new noncriminal identity and behavioral changes. "Basically, it gave them time to practice," said Blattman.
But we see HUGE sustained impacts. Crime & violence still down by about 50% from CBT+Cash.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
On thefts/robberies alone, they report ~34 fewer at both 1- and 10year points. Interpolating, this means ~338 fewer crimes per participant over 10y—$1.50 per crime avoided given $530 cost pic.twitter.com/vUsWTyhL2K
Inspired by the STYL program in Liberia, Chicago has been implementing a similar but more intensive program called READI, in which men in the city's most violent districts participate in therapy sessions in the morning and job training in the afternoon for a duration of 18 months. The city is also home to a program called Becoming a Man (BAM), where high schoolers do CBT-inspired group sessions. A randomized controlled trial determined that criminal arrests fell by about half during the BAM program. Even though its effects dissipated over time, the program was very cost-effective. "It's all about a progressive, rational policy for social control," said David Brotherton, a sociologist at the City University of New York. "Social inclusion is the most productive means of social control."
(And that's not counting all the other bad behaviors averted.)— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022
The program is such a success that people have begun replicating Borh’s ideas around the world.
Even Chicago adopted it as a main response to the 2016 gun crime spike. It’s called READI.https://t.co/9ogaiGeqKr pic.twitter.com/OD9u2XXr1F
(2) The fact that CBT works also suggests deeper insights into why we fight as human beings, and what could make for a more peaceful world. These are programs of socializing, and in them I see a microcosm of what the sociologist Norbert Elias called The Civilizing Process.— Chris Blattman (@cblatts) May 17, 2022