Researchers need funding to evaluate the best way to implement violence prevention programs, APA member Patrick H. Tolan, PhD, told a House of Representatives subcommittee during an October hearing on preventing and fighting crime.

Tolan, a member of the APA Committee on Children, Youth and Families, told the Judiciary Committee's Crime subcommittee that, as the field of violence prevention rapidly develops, it has become clear that there are many opportunities for violence prevention, that the strategy works better than punishment or incarceration and it is producing cost savings for society.

Specifically, Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research, urged the House to consider the following:

  • Sound evaluations show that violence prevention programs can reduce rate of aggression and violence by a third to a half. He cited programs like the Richmond Youth Violence Prevention Program, which have been shown to reduce in-school fights by 50 percent, violence-related suspensions by 59 percent and weapon-carrying in school by 74 percent.
  • Prevention works, but the effects depend greatly on what is done and how it is done. Tolan told the committee that effective prevention focuses on helping high-risk children and their parents; aiding schools and communities to create an environment that does not tolerate violence; and helping communities and police promote safety and integrate youth into community life.

"Unfortunately, many of the programs and efforts called 'prevention' are not using these approaches and methods," Tolan said, citing a national survey that found that less than half of violence prevention programs used methods proven to be effective, and even when the methods were used, in many instances they were not applied correctly.

  • Prevention is more effective and less costly than punishment and incarceration. The handful of scientific comparisons conducted shows that violence prevention reduces future crime more, costs less to deliver, provides greater cost savings over time and produces a broader set of health and social benefits than treatment or punishment, Tolan asserted.
  • Objective evaluations with sound scientific controls should be used to judge and compare prevention with other strategies, not personal testimonies, simplistic indexes or trend correspondences. These evaluations will provide direction about which approaches are valuable as well as the relative benefits among approaches.
  • Prevention benefits are easy to underestimate, miss or perceived as nonessential. "Prevention means somthing does not happen that would otherwise would have if not for the prevention effort," Tolan explained. "It is hard to see that something did not happen."

Tolan told the committee that more research could capitalize on these findings. Specifically, he said, "There is a need for large-scale studies, simultaneously undertaken in several cities. These require teams of investigators across sites and evaluators partnering with local schools and communities."