Five Evidence-based Takeaways Policymakers Need to Know About Preventing Youth Violence
The root causes of youth violence—a combination of individual, relationship, and community risk factors—are similar in communities across the globe. But community responses to improve public safety and well-being vary considerably. Local and national legislators and community leaders make decisions and allocate scarce resources to prevent youth violence—and evidence about what works can improve their likelihood of success.
To address this need in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, which has some of the highest rates of interpersonal and community-based violence in the world, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) selected AIR to conduct a global review of the evidence on youth violence prevention. The result is a comprehensive study that can support evidence-based policymaking in the LAC region—and worldwide.
“The research team used evidence gap mapping, a growing research methodology, to analyze the existing evidence and identify systematic gaps—where there is little or no research available—so that policymakers can focus their decisions on what is known versus what might be unknown,” said AIR Principal Researcher Patricia Campie, who led the study. “It’s literally a way to connect the dots. Policymakers also can think about how to create evidence in areas where there are gaps.”
Campie shares five takeaways policymakers need to know about preventing youth violence, based on the study and her decades of experience leading community-based research, evaluation, and implementation of violence prevention initiatives nationally and internationally.
- Define the goal—and engage young people. Policymakers often react impulsively to address youth violence, with no clear goal in mind. “Is the goal just to respond when there’s a shooting, which means all of your actions will be directed to law enforcement or criminal justice or increased prison sentences?” Campie asked. “Or is the goal to have a community where people feel safe—and neighborhoods in which even the mayor is happy to live and businesses want to invest?”
Involve community members, educators, researchers, and young people themselves in working toward aspirational goals. “There’s a saying that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, yet we often don’t involve young people in this work,” Campie said. “I think that’s key.”
- Focus on the heart of the problem: youth at highest risk. The most common violence prevention interventions worldwide are for young children of elementary and middle school age. Many of these programs are home-grown—developed and delivered by a school or teacher to all children—and fall under the umbrella of positive youth development. They focus on issues ranging from social and emotional development, healthy relationships, and peacebuilding to bullying prevention. Some schools use tiered supports, with stepped-up attention for students who exhibit problematic behavior and intensive support for students involved in delinquent or criminal activity.
While school-based interventions are important for creating safe and supportive educational environments, schools are not equipped to address the needs of students who commit serious crimes—nor should they be. Youth violence also occurs not just in schools, but in the community. Older adolescents and young people well into their twenties may no longer be in school.
“We need to focus more on tertiary prevention, which means working with young people who are committing most of the violence in the community—gang violence, homicide, all of that,” Campie said. “We can’t just throw away, lock up, or ignore the kids who are the hardest to work with. Without intervention, they are going to continue to cause problems, because 95% of the people who go to prison come out of prison and go back to the community. If you really want to attack this problem, you have to get to the heart of it. Tertiary prevention can help people successfully integrate back into their communities and become part of the solution.”
The good news: Shifting from punishment to prevention works. “These kids have hopes and dreams and fears and skills just like everyone else,” Campie said. “There are amazing results when you apply evidence-based practices to this population—and not only for them. Community levels of crime plummet.”
- Implement the most effective types of interventions—and adapt them to local contexts. The USAID study aligns with a long line of research showing that structured programs that stimulate positive cognitive and behavioral responses in youth are more effective than unstructured or passive learning through lectures or videos.
“The cognitive part of the intervention means giving someone an opportunity to think in a way that’s different than they normally think,” Campie said. “The critical part of the intervention is social learning—changing the thinking process and then experiencing what that means in real time in your behavior. It’s like imprinting a whole new set of behaviors on a person to change their habits.”
For example, a young person might be in the habit of committing crimes of opportunity, such as grabbing money from an unlocked car when no one is around. Friends might encourage this—or make fun of anyone who doesn’t commit the crime. Cognitive-behavioral therapy could help that person think through the consequences of criminal acts, engage in role-playing to act out better choices, and feel rewarded for positive behavioral changes.
Interventions also should be adapted to the specific problems and norms in the local community and confront systemic issues, such as racism, income and social inequality, and historical trauma.
- Document the details of interventions—especially for populations at highest risk. The evidence gap analysis reveals glaring omissions about the details of violence prevention interventions. This makes it challenging for interventions to be replicated and to produce comparable results in other settings and for different populations.
In AIR’s research, most of the studies reviewed provided little to no information on the program implementation process, the quality of implementation, or the extent to which the interventions were implemented with fidelity or according to plan. “If you don’t know why an intervention was effective, you’re not going to be super successful at repeating a great outcome,” Campie said.
In addition, even though lethal youth violence generates the largest economic impact and greatest concerns among policymakers and community members, research on interventions for high-risk populations is uncommon. “This is an evidence gap that still needs to be addressed,” Campie said.
- Do a cost-benefit analysis. All interventions require resources—including people, materials, and finances—yet most studies provide little information about this. Cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit analyses would help policymakers compare the relative benefits of different interventions, such as providing services vs. sending young people to prison, and the long-term benefits to intervention participants and communities. Knowing the costs and benefits also would help policymakers build their case with the community to support, sustain, and scale up the most effective interventions.