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Arrests down among youths who got jobs, therapy: U. of C. study

Evelyn Diaz is Chicago's commissioner Department Family Support Services.

Evelyn Diaz is Chicago's commissioner of Department of Family and Support Services.

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:20AM

To some, it will seem to be common sense. Others say it’s a real breakthrough.

A new study to be released Tuesday finds youths in high-violence neighborhoods who were offered jobs and therapy through a 2012 city anti-violence initiative showed a 51 percent drop in arrests for violent crimes.

That’s compared to a control group of their peers from the same neighborhoods who applied but didn’t get in the program .

“We wanted to answer the question, ‘Do summer jobs programs actually prevent youth violence?’ ” said Evelyn Diaz, commission of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. “The answer in this case is a resounding ‘Yes.’ These results are telling us that we have hit on something that seems to work.”

The $2.1 million initiative was funded by the city and Cook County, foundations and corporate donors such as Wal-Mart, which ponied up $800,000. Based on the study results, it’s being replicated this summer with an even higher-risk population.

Many community leaders who have advocated jobs as a remedy to devastating violence in Chicago’s inner city may say “Duh!” in response to the program’s evaluation by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

But researchers said the study of 1,634 predominantly black youths in grades eight to 12 — selected from 13 Chicago Public Schools in areas plagued by high violence and poverty — provides scientific evidence.

“An oft-repeated saying in Chicago suggests . . . ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job.’ . . . There is almost no convincing research on the effects of summer jobs, especially on crime,” the study states. It notes that previous research instead found “effects that fade out quickly after the program, the substitution of work for school, and high program costs that fail to outweigh benefits.”

The 730 Chicago youths, including 44 percent males — offered jobs, mentors and social emotional learning in group therapy settings — have now proved otherwise.

“These results draw an early but optimistic picture about the ability of jobs and SEL to reduce violence,” according to the nine-month evaluation of those youths and their non-program peers during and after last summer’s eight-week initiative.

This summer, a predominantly black, all-male group of 1,000 ages 16-24 — at least two-thirds of whom have previous arrests — began the program on July 1.

The U. of C. Crime Lab will track this new group too, along with the first group.

“With this new population, everyone thought these youth were just going to drop off. But we’re seeing a 92 percent retention rate. I’ve talked to some of these young men, and they are just so grateful about the opportunity,” Diaz said. “We’re excited. We can’t just give up on these young men once they get in trouble. Now we have solid evidence. We can begin to change the trajectory.”

Study author Sara Heller said the initiative is potentially a national model.

The first group mirrored their control group of 904 non-program peers in high-risk characteristics. All had missed an average of six weeks of school; 20 percent had previous arrests. Since June 2012, however, the 730 program youths have posted a 51 percent decrease in arrests for violent crime compared with their peers.

“If the decrease in violent-crime arrests persists, it is possible that program benefits may eventually outweigh program costs,” the U. of C. study said.

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