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Think Before You Act: A New Approach to Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout

This paper offers an innovative way to reduce the incarceration of juveniles in the United Sates based on randomized controlled trials in Chicago which showed a reduction in arrests for violent crime by an average of 40% with benefits to the community of almost 30 times the program's costs. "Improving the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youths remains a top policy priority in the United States. Unfortunately, long-term progress in improving outcomes like high school graduation rates and reduction of violent crime has been limited, partly because finding ways to successfully improve outcomes for disadvantaged youths (particularly males) has proven to be challenging. We believe one reason so many previous strategies have failed is because they at least implicitly assume that young people are forward-looking and consider the long-term consequences of their actions before they act. But a growing body of research in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that a great deal of everyone’s behavior happens intuitively and automatically, with little deliberate thought. Although it is often helpful for us to rely on automatic responses to guide our daily behavior, doing so can also get us into trouble, with consequences that are particularly severe for young people growing up in distressed urban areas where gangs, drugs, and guns are prevalent. We thus propose that the federal government aim to provide each teenager living in poverty in the United States with one year of behaviorally informed programming, intended to help youths recognize high-stakes situations when their automatic responses may be maladaptive" (p. 1).