The Community Consulting Group, New York City - CCGNY

Prevention of Adult Criminal Behavior

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD and Emily Garrod PhD

Borg, Jr., M. B. & Garrod, E. (2003). Criminal Behavior, Adulthood. In M. Bloom & T. Gullotta (Eds.) The Encyclopedia of Primary Prevention and Health Promotion (pp. 366-372). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.


Theoretical approaches to the prevention of adult criminal behavior range from those that focus on the individual and the community to those that target specific crimes and their prevention in specific areas. With the exception of strategies that target specific crimes in specific areas, there appear to be few direct links between primary prevention and adult criminal behavior. Public health approaches to crime prevention claim to implement primary prevention strategies, but these approaches do not target adults (Tonry & Farrington, 1995). The highly controversial, and historically political, nature of defining criminals and criminal behavior may contribute to the paucity of primary prevention strategies in this area. While the link between primary prevention and adult criminal behavior is often tenuous, we can address theories and approaches that have attempted to locate and influence people who are naturally exposed to the conditions that foster crime.


Felner and Lorion, (1989) state that "a preventative intervention involves the systematic alteration and modification of processes related to the development of adaptation and well-being or disorder, with the goals of increasing or decreasing, respectively, the rate or level with which these occur in the [target] population" (p. 93). Developmental studies have shown that common antecedents, such as family resources and interaction patterns, economic and social deprivation, life stresses, powerlessness, and a number of non-specific resiliency factors (e.g., social support, self-efficacy, hope), all influence the probability that members of a population will develop patterns of disordered behavior (Felner, et al., 2000). We must also consider the possibility that target (criminal) behaviors may reflect adaptive solutions to disordered contextual conditions (Moynihan, 1986). Primary prevention of criminal behavior is, therefore, defined as the modification of criminogenic conditions in the physical and social environment at large. Secondary prevention, in contrast, involves targeting and modifying common early antecedents (e. g., educational opportunity, social support, etc.), in the lives of individuals or groups in criminogenic circumstances. Tertiary prevention focuses on the prevention of recidivism through the specific use of the criminal justice system.

The definition of criminal and criminality is a highly controversial process that ranges in perspective from political to psychiatric. Political definitions of criminality which include aspects of racial identity and/or political ideology, such as those implemented in Nazi Germany, South Africa's Apartheid, and a multitude of dictatorial regimes serve as potent examples of the potential for definitions of criminality to be used in ways that oppress and terrorize, rather than protect, targeted segments of the population.

From the psychiatric perspective, the "typical criminal" has had a history that, if monitored and diagnosed, began with Oppositional Defiant Disorder which was, at some point, reassessed as Conduct Disorder and finally led to Antisocial Personality Disorder. According to the DSM-IV (APA, 1994) "The essential feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in early childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood" (p. 645). Deceit and manipulation, failure to conform to social norms regarding lawful behavior, impulsivity, irritability, aggressiveness, lack of remorse and repetitive patterns of illegal actions are among the criteria for this disorder. This disorder is associated with low socio-economic status and urban settings, and questions have been raised regarding misapplication of this diagnosis to individuals in settings in which such behaviors may be part of protective survival strategies (Kaplan & Sadock, 1998). In contexts of both political oppression and severe socio-economic deprivation behaviors defined as criminal by those outside the immediate community may be viewed by community members as necessary survival strategies (Sperry, 1995). Therefore, in the definition of adult criminal behavior we must be aware of relevant community norms and values.

Scope of the Problem in the U.S.

According to Crime State Rankings 2000 (Morgan & Morgan, 2000), the most recent findings on victims of all crimes (including "personal crimes," "property crimes," but not including murder) was 31,307,000 in 1998.[1] In the case of murder, the reported national arrest rate for 1998 was 6.5 reported arrests per 100,000 in the U.S. population (p. 8). Nationally, there were 5,563 reported arrests per 100,000, resulting in a 4.4% increase in the number of state prisoners from 1997 to 1998 (p. 48). 6.4% of state prisoners were female (p. 55).[2] The expense of state and local government judicial and legal payroll in 1998 was $13,750,837,716 (p. 179).[3] This figure, under-representative by poor compliance in governmental reporting, accounts only for the legal expenses associated with court proceedings regarding adult criminal behavior and does not reflect the huge expense of housing and managing inmate populations. In general, studies have shown that for every dollar spent on prevention, cost savings of between $3 and $10 may be realized in reduced demand for after-the-fact service (Felner, et al., 2000). However, as the incidence, prevalence and reported costs of adult criminal behavior is greatly under-reported, and existing statistics do not adequately represent the broad range of crimes, criminals and expenditures, the accuracy of this equation is difficult to assess.


There are two broad categories of approach to crime prevention, the public health and the criminal justice approach. The public health perspective views crime or, more specifically, violence as emerging from complex causal systems, not only offenders' intentions, motivations and characters. Favored interventions take place at the level of primary prevention — the prevention of harms before they occur (Moore, 1995). Criminal justice approaches generally intervene at the secondary or tertiary levels, when the signs of crime has been identified or when rehabilitation after adjudication has begun. Moore (1995) states that

Advocates of the criminal justice approach view arresting, prosecuting and jailing offenders as preventing crime through four mechanisms: (1) general deterrence (i.e., the effect that comes from threatening everyone in the population with criminal prosecution if they violate laws); (2) specific deterrence (i.e., the effect on an individual criminal offender that comes from punishing him for a specific offense); (3) incapacitation (i.e., the effect that comes from holding an offender under such close supervision that it is impossible for him to commit offenses); and (4) rehabilitation (p. 249).

The public health approach to prevention also has a number of strategies: (1) preventing first offenses (i.e., developmental crime prevention); (2) technological manipulations of the environment (i.e., physically changing the environment to reduce its vulnerability to crime); (3) cultural approaches (i.e., addressing risk factors such as violence on TV); and (4) education. In trying to shape attitudes and behavior, the public health approach often prefers educational to legal strategies. Public health efforts to prevent adult criminal behavior generally target violent behaviors, focus interventions on children and adolescents, and redirect attention and resources to victims. This approach encourages an assessment of the causes of crime which influence, rather than begin with, the offender.

The criminal justice system, while a necessary component in crime prevention, is not sufficient. For every 100 offenses committed, forty-nine are reported to the police, thirty are reported by them, seven are cleared up, and two result in a conviction (Laycock & Tilley, 1995). The main problem with crime prevention strategies that focus solely on the use of the criminal justice system is that, given the high degree of effort, they are increasingly understood to have only modest effects on rates or patterns of crime (Glensor, et al., 2000). The public health approach, in contrast, may neglect the law as an instrument for education as well as a device for authorizing state intervention. Both approaches, singularly, appear limited and inadequate to address the severity and variability of adult criminal behavior. The public health perspective views the criminal justice system as being reactive and overly reliant on traditional police tactics (i.e., arrest and incarceration), while the criminal justice approach views the public health approach as being overly optimistic in its view of the mutability of human behavior (Clarke, 1997). The public health perspective potentially complements that of criminal justice by focusing on crime as a threat to both community health and community order, both victims and offenders, and on crime between intimates as well as strangers.


An assessment of crime and criminals, as well as the recorded differences between Antisocial Personality Disorder prevalence rates and general crime statistics, suggests an immense diversity of crimes and criminals (Duff, 1995). A variety of offenders commit a variety of crimes for a variety of reasons, and prevention strategies need to take account of those differences. The following strategies approach prevention of adult criminal behavior from a wide variety of perspectives and intervention strategies.

Developmental Prevention

Developmental prevention covers a multidisciplinary form of intervention that is designed to prevent the development of criminal potential in individuals, especially those targeting risk and protective factors discovered in studies of human development. Multisystemic treatment to antisocial behavior in children and adolescents have shown promising results and a favorable prognosis regarding the eventual prevention of adult criminal behavior (Carter and Sapp, 2000; Henggeler, et al., 1998; Tonry & Farrington, 1994).

Situational Prevention

Situational prevention theories support strategies that are designed to prevent the occurrence of crimes by reducing opportunities and increasing risks, based on the premise that much crime is contextual and opportunistic. Situational crime prevention, according to Clarke (1997), is defined as

Comprising measures directed at highly specific forms of crime that involved the management, design, or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systemic and permanent a way as possible so as to reduce the opportunities of crime and increase its risks as perceived by a wide range of offenders (p. 91).

Situational prevention techniques include: (1) increasing perceived efforts (e.g., through target hardening by electronic tagging of merchandise and increasing access control through parking lot barriers), to reduce opportunities by making crimes more difficult to commit; (2) increasing perceived risks (e.g., through formal surveillance by closed-circuit TV and increased entry/exit screening); and (3) reducing anticipated rewards (e.g., through removing inducements by putting smaller, more valuable items behind the counter and identifying property to prevent resale); among others. Studies suggest that situational crime prevention strategies are highly effective. Clarke (2000) cites evidence from twenty-three successful case studies of situational crime prevention programs conducted in the U.S. and Britain, where the most effective reductions in crime were evidenced at 50%, although the author adds that "situational measures usually ameliorate, rather than eliminate problems" (p. 202). Other critics of this approach have stated that it displaces crime, rather than genuinely preventing it by addressing underlying causes (Tonry & Farrington, 1995).

Community Crime Prevention

Community crime prevention targets the community but does not directly link police and community members. Interventions are designed to change the social conditions that influence offending in residential communities. Whether individuals commit crimes, in this model, is probabilistically related to where they live. Community crime prevention is premised on the idea that changing the community may change the behavior of the people who live there. It has included efforts to control crime by altering building and neighborhood design to increase natural surveillance and guardianship, improving the physical appearance of areas, organizing community residents to take preventive actions and to solicit additional political and material resources, and organizing self-conscious community crime prevention strategies (Felson, 1994). The effectiveness of the community approach appears to depend, in part, on how broadly one defines community. Residential groups who attempt to stem crime without the support of local institutions, groups and/or agencies such approaches generally cannot sustain a unified program for the area as a whole (Foster & Hope, 1993). Efforts to reshape contextual cues to prevent crime, such as citizens banding together to change the look of their neighborhoods or to provide neighborhood watch groups, often fall short along class lines as poorer communities seldom independently start, carry through, or maintain collective efforts because of their transient populations (Skogan, 1990). Therefore, community action occurs less often among those who need it the most — the disadvantaged (Verba, et al., 1993). The empirical evidence for the effectiveness of community crime prevention, in the absence of other community development approaches, is lacking (Hope, 1995). While communities that have implemented these strategies have shown significant reductions in the incidence of specific crimes, these interventions have coincided with other community development projects and, therefore, their specific contribution to crime reduction is unknown (Forrester, et al., 1988).

Zero-Tolerance Policing

In contrast to community police measures, which attempt to produce order and reduce crime through cooperation with community members, zero-tolerance policing attempts to impose control through strict law enforcement (Cordner, 1998). This approach tends toward invasive measures and has been labeled "harassment policing" (Panzarella, 1998). A component of this approach is to "crackdown" on misdemeanors and minor violations, hence increasing the visibility of the police. Critics allege that minorities bear the brunt of this strategy, as minority members have been frequently and disproportionately subjected to arrest, stop-and-frisk searches, disrespect, and brutality (Yardley, 1999). While such strategies claim to have significantly reduced crime, in New York City for example, significant concerns have been expressed about their inherent potential for abuse, discrimination, and violation of civil liberties (Eck & Maguire, 2000). There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policing. Evidence on the effectiveness of related generic order-maintenance strategies on reducing violent crime are mixed (Reiss, 1985; Sherman, 1990). Critics of these strategies believe they increase criminality by leading offenders (or potential offenders) to become more angry and defiant, or by labeling minor offenders as criminals, thereby increasing their potential to commit future crimes (Cordner, 1998).


Communitarianism is founded on the belief that neighborhood crime problems can be solved primarily through self-help efforts of residents, and that "laws communicate and symbolize those values that the community holds dear" (Etzioni, 1993, p. 133). Braithwaite (1989) describes Communitarian society as

A dense network of individual interdependencies with strong cultural commitments to mutuality of obligation.… Interdependence and mutual obligation together provide the resource for social control; not only are members of such a community likely to be subject to shame or exclusion if they individually transgress, but also each individual feels confident to enlist the support of others to act on deviants and maintain the norms of the community (pp. 85–86).

This is a strategy of social avoidance where in-group members strictly control outside influence. Ultimately, in the communitarian ideal, community members would either have to enforce a segmented order, based on a consensus on agreed-upon (by the in-group) laws of the moral majority, or strive to integrate offenders into their communities. There have been no empirical studies of the Communitarian approach. Media strategies to prevent minor offenses, such as littering, suggest that appeals to common ideals of citizenship may, at times, be effective. Critics of Communitarianism view it as tending toward discrimination and insularity through its narrow emphasis on conventional or normative values and behavior (DeLeon-Granados, 1999).

Community Policing

The practice of community policing is based on the assumption that police interventions are severely hampered without the full cooperation of community members and resources. Community policing views police acting as catalysts for local change by helping community members to exploit their own informal social control abilities. Some important characteristics of community policing are: (1) decentralization (to encourage officer initiative and the effective use of local knowledge); (2) geographically defined rather than functionally defined subordinate units (to encourage the development of local knowledge); and (3) close interactions with local communities (Peak & Glensor, 2000).

Community-Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) is a specific approach to community policing that has been developing from Goldstein's (1979) identification of the concept of problem-oriented policing to the present time. COPPS is a proactive philosophy that involves identifying, analyzing, and addressing crime and other community problems at their source. The COPPS philosophy emphasizes the need to redefine who is responsible for public safety, and the roles and relationships between the police and the community. Police and community members work cooperatively to identify problems and develop long-term, proactive community-wide solutions. COPPS requires shared ownership, decision making, accountability, and sustained commitment from both the police and the community. To be effective, this approach requires both police management styles which include diverse public feedback into the decision making process and the establishment of new public expectations of, and measurement standards for, police effectiveness (Glesnor, et al., 2000). Empirical evidence for the effectiveness of community policing is mixed (Eck & Maguire, 2000; Sherman, 1997). There is little empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of increasing the number of police officers in a given area. However, directed patrols in hot spots, firearms enforcement, and retail drug market enforcement have shown reasonably strong quasi-experimental support for their effects (Blumstein & Wallman, 2000). It is not clear, however, whether these effects are based on specific implementation strategies, targeting repeat offenders, or other trends effecting drug markets and crime (Eck & Maguire, 2000). Critics of community policing argue that its reliance on arrest and conviction statistics is likely to negate latent problem-solving skills indigenous to the community. The net effect can result in a crime-control model that disturbs the community ecology more than it stabilizes it, one in which officers fail to exploit fully cohesive, resourceful community networks, in favor of surveillance, crackdowns, sweeps, arrests and problem obliteration (DeLeon-Granados, 1999).

Community Building as Crime Prevention

The National Prevention Council (1994) states that

Crime prevention is defined as patterns of attitudes and behaviors directed at reducing the threat of crime and enhancing the sense of safety and security, to positively influence the quality of life in our society and to help build environments where crime cannot flourish (p. 107).

This definition clarifies the importance of community as a base for prevention. It also recognizes that there is a dual task: reducing crime's threat to the community and developing communities that discourage crime.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed a Healthy and Safe Communities initiative, which is an approach to comprehensive community revitalization that identifies crime prevention as a primary goal.

Previous program interventions share the common goal of stabilizing and transforming communities through coordinated and broad-based efforts that engage community members in restoring the social fabric of their respective communities. Primary interventions tend to cluster around specific issues: (1) community organizing and broadening of participation; (2) strengthening local collaborations and linkages (with special attention paid to the role of community policing); (3) improving access to education, skills, training and jobs; (4) enhancing the quality of school life, and creating better youth motivational programs (5) improving social and other services; (6) developing a base of economic prosperity for the community; and (7) enhancing the physical quality of life (Borg, 1997). The community building approach assumes that crime is part of an ecological picture that includes other community variables, not only economic ones, but cultural, moral, symbolic and perhaps even spiritual (DeLeon-Granados, 1999). According to this model, the community and the police (as well as representatives from within both the public health and criminal justice system) co-produce safety. Indigenous solution — specific to a time and place and developed from within the community's own agenda — are derived collaboratively. The overriding assumption is that people stop crime, specifically people who form cohesive, interdependent communities. The key to this community-based collaborative approach is sustained involvement, not temporary mobilization to address specific threats.

A four-year comprehensive community revitalization pilot program run in collaboration with the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Safe and Healthy Communities initiative in the South Bronx, evidenced a 54% reduction in general, though not specific, crime (Mills, 1996). Similar programs are now being conducted nationally and are considered exemplars of community crime prevention.

Strategy Assessment

Clearly, there is need for assessment techniques that accurately measure the outcomes of crime prevention strategies. Empirical evidence for strategy effectiveness, at this time, is generally in the form of case studies, action research or, at best, quasi-experimental. Crime statistics, arrest and indictment records are generally utilized to validate quasi-experimental evaluations of crime prevention programs (Glesnor & Peak, 2000). Often, the objective of empirical evaluations in the area of crime prevention is not to document the precise value of particular interventions observed under particular circumstances, but to build a detailed understanding of the principles of effective crime reducing strategies. This more qualitative approach is based upon the assumption that crime prevention practitioners are called upon to provide tailor-made solutions for new problems arising in fresh circumstances and, therefore, quantitative measures of effectiveness are of limited generalizability (Clarke, 1997, 2000; Glesnor, et al., 2000).

The interlocking patterns (individual, social, environment) that influence criminal behavior suggests that we must address larger issues, such as parenting and role-modeling, and the presence or lack of educational and financial opportunities in a given community in order to adequately account for the intergenerational nature of crime. Considering the paucity of direct links between the prevention of adult criminal behavior and primary prevention strategies, we might do well to, as Albee (1981) has suggested, "look to the dynamics of the larger societal context as we attempt to formulate primary prevention programs" (p. 26) in this area.

Strategies That Work

It appears that the most effective potential strategy would be a blend of public health and criminal justice approaches, which included situational crime prevention techniques, specific policing tactics, and communitarian concepts; all within the larger context of community building as crime prevention. For example, increasing natural surveillance through street- lighting (a situational technique) and traditional policing tactics, such as crackdowns on known drug-retailing sites are likely to be maximally effective when they are viewed by members of the community they effect as collaboratively derived solutions to community problems (a communitarian ideal). Community building projects maximize the effectiveness of crime prevention when specific strategies are viewed as only one aspect in a larger, integrative effort to empower community residents to articulate and solve their own problems. The complex, integrative community building approach to adult crime prevention is a primary prevention strategy that directly reduces targeted criminal behaviors while also addressing the larger context in which they occur.

Strategies That May Work

Situational, community policing, and communitarian approaches may work as primary prevention strategies on a limited basis. It is when we begin to address long-term implications that these specific approaches, in isolation, are likely to be lacking in efficiency and, in certain instances, may be detrimental. Short-term effectiveness must be weighed, on a case by case basis, against negative long-term effects (e.g., increased community apathy and alienation from law enforcement personnel) through increasing awareness of specific community issues, values and norms.

Strategies That Do Not Work

Strategies that do not work as primary prevention techniques are those which have either negligible immediate effectiveness or whose short-term effectiveness is outweighed by severe long-term negative effects. For instance, increasing the number of police officers in a given area without any effort to integrate them into the community has been found to be ineffective (Blumstein & Wallman, 2000). On the other hand, zero-tolerance strategies may have short-term effectiveness in reducing crime; however, their long-term consequences of alienating and criminalizing community members are likely to outweigh short-term effectiveness.


If we accept that crime is an intergenerational problem, then we must develop and refine strategies of a transgenerational nature. Generally, current crime prevention strategies remain rooted in: (1) a public health system that attempts only indirectly to prevent adult criminal behavior by targeting circumscribed age groups (children and adolescents) and specific (violent) behaviors; or, (2) a punitive, arrest- and indictment-driven criminal justice system. Neither system addresses the existing diversity of crime, criminal and context. As DeLeon-Granados (1999) states,

The community project is pursued with the best of intentions, and people are working hard to build community and respond to crime. But even if such a project is given every opportunity to work, there is still a disturbing tension underlying it. It is a tension about division between race and class, about using community to oil the cogs of a punitive criminal justice system and about locking people away rather than forging new relations with one another as the most important problem-solving strategy (p. 149).

Strategies, which derive from and for specific communities, seem the most promising. A community building approach that empowers community members to address patterns and perceptions of isolation, inequality and stagnation provides the best context for crime prevention. Crime may, after all, be viewed as a symptom of a society that is not adequately addressing the immediate and developmental needs of all of its members. Therefore, the search for crime prevention must go beyond the symptom toward an awareness of crime as, in part, a reflection of the way a culture represents itself. New multidisciplinary paradigms must reflect the vast diversity of crimes, criminals, victims, and the contexts within which these three elements interact.


1 The most comprehensive and objective assessment of overall national crime rates was completed 12/29/99 by the U.S. Bureau of the Census (Morgan & Morgan, 2000, p. A-2).

2 The national arrest rates noted by Morgan & Morgan are based on arrest numbers reported by the FBI and are only from those law enforcement agencies that submitted complete arrests reports for 12 months in 1998. The editors stated that these numbers were, therefore, subject to underestimating the actual incidence and prevalence rates of crime in the United States and should be interpreted with caution.

3 This includes court and court-related activities (except probation and parole), activities of sheriff's offices, prosecuting attorneys' and public defenders' offices, legal departments and attorneys providing government-wide legal services.


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