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Counseling For Chicago Youth Cuts Arrest Rate In New Study

New research from the University of Chicago Crime Lab shows a program that’s helping young men think before they act may be key to reducing arrests in Chicago. 

The Becoming A Man (BAM) program, developed by Chicago non-profit Youth Guidance, gives at-risk young men in middle school and high school weekly counseling sessions to help them make better in-the-moment decisions.

Program counselors don’t emphasize “doing the right thing,” but rather encourage kids to focus taking a moment before they respond to tense situations with aggression or violence. 

“One of the things we have to recognize as adults is that these kids have real dilemmas,” said Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor and author of the study. “They’re trying to navigate them as best they can and if you tell kids things like ‘never fight’ — that’s not realistic to the world in which they live. Now what you can tell them is, you may have to fight, but boy you’ve got a bunch of other things in your toolkit that you want to go through first.”

Pollack said the cognitive behavioral counseling the program provides helps kids develop the skills necessary to break down what is happening during a tense interaction and make more informed choices about how to act. 

Young men in these situations often default to what psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls “System 1” thinking, Pollack said. 

“System 1” thinking is the immediate, gut reaction an individual has, whereas “System 2” thinking involves taking a breath, slowing down, and reflecting before acting.

In two trials beginning in 2009 and 2013, respectively, researchers identified over 4,700 kids on Chicago’s South and West Sides who were at-risk of dropping out of high school and being arrested for violent crime.

During the trial periods, total arrests for study participants fell by 28 to 35 percent, with arrests for violent crime falling by 45 to 50 percent and arrests for other crimes falling by 37 to 43 percent, according to the paper. 

Researchers found that youth involved were between 12 and 19 percent more likely to graduate high school. This data is not yet available for the trial that began in 2013. 

“I was surprised by the magnitude of these effects, and in some ways I was really saddened by them,” Pollack said. “With a relatively modest intervention, we shouldn’t be seeing such a dramatic decline in arrest for violent offenses. It really speaks to how much the kids need in their lives that they’re not getting.”

The researchers launched a third version of the trial in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where juvenile arrestees are held before going to trial. The intervention included increased staff education, rewards for good behavior, and a daily program with many of the same elements as the Becoming A Man program. 

Compared to youths held in detention who did not receive the intervention, those who did were 21 percent less likely to be readmitted.

Unfortunately, Pollack said, the effect of the intervention fell off some after the study period ended. 

The study’s authors argue that more long-term intervention could lead to more sustained results. On the high end, the program costs about $2,000 per student participant to implement. 

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at an event Monday that the city made an early investment in the program, and plans to allocate more funding to expand the number of students in BAM for the upcoming budget. 

“As a city it’s very easy to become convinced that there’s not much we can do to address these deeply rooted issues, and BAM is a great illustration that we can do things that are helpful, not a miracle cure, but things that are feasible and cost effective,” Pollack said. 

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