READI anti-violence program is proof that crime prevention can work

A University of Chicago study found that men in the program were far less likely to be arrested for a violent crime and nearly 20% less likely to be shot compared with men who weren’t participants.

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Bryant Robertson, with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, stands in the computer lab at the HQ of READI Chicago, Thursday April 14, 2022. At the computer lab participants work to get their GEDs.

Bryant Robertson, with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, stands in the computer lab at the HQ of READI Chicago on April 14. At the computer lab participants work to get their GEDs.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Three years ago, we were hopeful about the early success of READI Chicago, a relatively new anti-violence outreach program that targets high-risk men on the South and West sides.

That optimism has since grown. A recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that the initiative is highly effective at keeping those men, who live in some of the city’s most troubled communities, from engaging in crime and violence, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Andy Grimm reports.

The findings ought to be studied closely by elected officials, law enforcement, activists and others who are wracking their brains to find solutions to the relentless gun violence that engulfs the city.

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The big takeaway: Relying heavily on law enforcement — arresting, jailing and boosting police presence — is not the wholesale answer to reducing crime.

Prevention, via education and other support, can be just as advantageous.

A focus on therapy

The study of READI, which stands for Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, used what’s considered the “gold standard” for scientific research: a randomized controlled trial that compared men who enrolled in the program with a control group of men who were turned away.

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The U of C study is the first of its kind to evaluate a large group with the same statistical rigor and method used to evaluate medical treatments.

Altogether, 2,500 men were tracked. The findings were striking.

The men enrolled in the 18-month READI course were two-thirds less likely to be arrested for a violent crime and nearly 20% less likely to be shot compared with the men who weren’t taking part in the program.

The men who were recruited by outreach workers — rather than community members or through other means — showed even more promise: Their arrests dropped by almost 80% and they were nearly 50% less likely to be shot.

Those statistics are especially noteworthy, given that a third of the men in READI had been shot at before they joined the program and racked up an average of 17 arrests.

READI offers job and educational training, like many other organizations designed to curtail violence.

But it stands out for its focus on cognitive behavior therapy, a counseling treatment that aims to change a person’s thought patterns. Christopher Blattman, a researcher and economist at the U. of C.’s Harris Center for Public Policy who helped design and evaluate READI, has observed, for example, that the therapy has been beneficial in helping former child soldiers in Liberia.

Men tangled up in violence in the neighborhoods targeted by READI — Austin, Englewood, North Lawndale, West Englewood and West Garfield Park — are likely to deal with similar trauma because of exposure to gang violence or involvement in street gangs.

The city would do well to look to the READI model as a template for other violence intervention programs.

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We’d also like to see those men who were turned away from the program — to provide for a control group — get a chance now to participate. Those men certainly lost out, and should get the opportunity to turn their lives around as well — like Sylvester, a participant who spent 13 years in prison and was recruited to READI when he returned home.

He earned $15 an hour to attend job training and therapy sessions. Now he’s working in outreach himself, taking college classes and planning to go into social work.

READI is funded by private donors, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget includes $14.5 million for similar programs.

It would cost Chicago $1 billion a year for violence prevention spending and increased policing, to reduce crime in Chicago by 50%, U. of C. Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig said in a speech to the City Club of Chicago last month.

That’s quite a high tab. But the city spends hundreds of millions on police overtime and on anti-violence programs that may not have a track record of success.

At $20 million a year, READI is producing results to fix the city’s most intractable problem.

Scaling it up would be money well spent.

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