The Pyramid of Risk

“The fact that most youth don’t get arrested, even in the poorest neighborhoods, means that traditional thinking about risk factors needs to be stood on its head”, said Karl Bertrand, the founder and President of Program Design and Development, LLC., an agency that helps public and private organizations develop effective and innovative programs. Click Here to read more.

I heard Mr. Bertrand and many others speak at a conference this week sponsored by the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) for reducing youth violence. Over 400 individuals from across the country were in attendance along with over two dozen speakers to address issues surrounding youth crime and prevention. I was there with a handful of others from the Center for Court Innovation looking to bring ideas back to the Bronx.

This would seem like an easy task at a three-day conference, however new ideas can often go in one ear and come out the other. The one that did resonate, however, was Mr. Bertrand’s “Evidence-Based Targeting” (EBT). EBT focuses on prioritizing risk factors to determine which have the greatest impact on preventing youth crime. Common risk factors include being a male of color, having an arrest history, cutting school excessively and living in poverty. The reality is however, that thousands of young people experience at least one if not several of these risk factors and yet not all of them are getting arrested. “Why?” Mr. Bertrand asked the audience.

The answer is that although they are all risk factors, the affect they have individually varies greatly. Being a young Black man from a low-income neighborhood does not predestine you to a life of criminality. Being poor does not mean you will end up in jail or even that there is a good chance you will get arrested. In Yonkers, where Mr. Bertrand’s agency is located, only 1 in 29 youth aged 7-15 will be arrested within the next three years and among the 20% of residents that live in poverty, only 1 in 23 youth are likely to be arrested. What this tells us is that poverty alone is not much of a risk factor and with community programs often working with limited resources, it is important to be efficient and not waste money and time on an overly general target population that is not collectively at great risk.

“Rather”, suggests Mr. Bertrand, “find out what factors do greatly increase the chance of teenagers getting arrested and focus your resources on targeting that population”. Illustrated by a chart he calls the “Pyramid of Risk”, cutting school, being suspended or a combination of the two are risk factors that much more often lead to youth crime than some of its competitors. According to the Yonkers Juvenile Crime Enforcement Coalition and data from the 2000 census, of the 6,612 individual’s age 10-14 living in poverty in Yonkers, only 7% were arrested within three years. Contrastingly, of the 709 students in grades 7-8 with more than twenty unexcused absences from school, 21% were arrested and of the students in grades 6-8 with more than twenty absences and at least one suspension, 61% were arrested. The message from the data is clear: Youth who are excessively absent from school have a much greater chance of getting arrested than those who attend regularly, regardless of income. By targeting the right population, programs can conserve time, funding and avoid combing through the hundreds and thousands of other individuals who fall into a general target population, but aren’t necessarily at high risk of being arrested.

Although the Juvenile Accountability Court works with adolescents who have already been arrested and placed on probation, many of the risk factors are still applicable to our population. Our youth are mostly African American and Latino males who reside in poor Bronx neighborhoods; several of them come from households with limited resources and several of them are chronically absent from school. Additionally, just because they are on probation does not mean they cannot get rearrested. Applying the lessons from Yonkers’ Evidence-Based Targeting, it would make sense to focus more energy and resources on the probationers who fail to attend school regularly or at least design our own “Pyramid of Risk” where we determine which risk factors affect our kids, teenagers who have already been arrested and are on probation, the most.