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When crime prevention harms: a review of systematic reviews

Abstract

Objectives

In a series of important scholarly works, Joan McCord made the case for the criminological community to take seriously harmful effects arising from individual-based crime prevention programs. Building on these works, two key questions are of central interest to this paper: What has been the state of research on harmful effects of these crime prevention programs since McCord’s works? And what are the theoretical, methodological, and programmatic characteristics of individual-based crime prevention programs with reported harmful effects?

Methods

This paper reports on the first empirical review of harmful effects of crime prevention programs, drawing upon 15 Campbell Collaboration systematic reviews. Altogether, 574 experimental and quasi-experimental studies (published and unpublished) with 645 independent effect sizes were reviewed.

Results

A total of 22 harmful effects from 22 unique studies of individual-based crime prevention programs were identified. Almost all of the studies have been reported since 1990, all but 2 were carried out in the United States, and two-thirds can be considered unpublished. The studies covered a wide range of interventions, from anti-bullying programs at schools, to second responder interventions involving police, to the Scared Straight program for juvenile delinquents, with more than half taking place in criminal justice settings. Boot camps and drug courts accounted for the largest share of studies with harmful effects.

Conclusions

Theory failure, implementation failure, and deviancy training were identified as the leading explanations for harmful effects of crime prevention programs, and they served as key anchors for a more focused look at implications for theory and policy. Also, the need for programs to be rigorously evaluated and monitored is evident, which will advance McCord’s call for attention to safety and efficacy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In addition to her academic writings on these topics, McCord was a founding member of the Crime and Justice Steering Committee of the Campbell Collaboration and a president of the Academy of Experimental Criminology.

  2. 2.

    Publication dates for these reviews range from 2005 to 2012, with 28 published between 2008 and 2012.

  3. 3.

    As noted by Petrosino et al. (2010, p. 13), “Because the system processing condition is usually the control group in the experiments, it is often not described further.”

  4. 4.

    All the 574 studies met the criteria for inclusion in the systematic reviews that we consulted, and all the effect sizes were based on treatment versus control comparisons.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to David Wilson and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Brandon C. Welsh.

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Welsh, B.C., Rocque, M. When crime prevention harms: a review of systematic reviews. J Exp Criminol 10, 245–266 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-014-9199-2

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Keywords

  • Crime prevention
  • Harmful effect
  • Systematic review
  • High quality evaluation
  • Theory failure
  • Implementation failure