Build families, not prisons to reduce crime

EdmontonJournal.com – opinion
January 30, 2011.

Do people want more prisons? Wouldn’t they prefer less crime?

We know that prisons have little effect in reducing crime. Those who might be deterred by prison, such as criminal corporation executives, rarely end up in prison. Some offenders become more involved in crime because of their prison experiences.

For decades, however, we have known that a better quality of life for children reduces crime.

Research on child development shows that support to vulnerable first-time mothers helps children become less troublesome young adults.

David Olds and his colleagues at the University of Colorado have designed an appropriate action program which utilized public health nurses to deliver support typically available to middle class families.

The nurse-family programs focus on improving prenatal health, reducing child abuse and enhancing family functioning in the first two years of the child’s life.

Other programs have concentrated on pre-adolescent or adolescent children. These seem to be less effective than programs designed to reduce socio-emotional risks for children at a very early age.

The nurse-family programs help first-time mothers become effective parents. Public health nurses help women identify health issues, achieve a healthy diet, stop smoking, etc. After delivery, nurses help mothers and other caregivers improve the physical and emotional care of their children.

Three evaluations of these programs were done in Elmira, Memphis, and Denver.

The 400 young mothers in the Elmira sample were primarily white single mothers.

Compared to their control group, the nurse-visited women improved their diets, smoked 25 per cent fewer cigarettes during pregnancy, had fewer kidney infections, and produced heavier babies.

During the first two years of the child’s life, nurse-visited children born to low-income, unmarried teens had 80 per cent fewer cases of child abuse and neglect than the control group.

Clearly, these young mothers were performing better, but did their children commit fewer crimes?

By age 15 they were performing better than the comparison group, had 69 per cent fewer convictions, 58 per cent fewer sexual partners, smoked 28 per cent fewer cigarettes, and consumed alcohol on 51 per cent fewer days. These effects were greater for children born to mothers who were poor and unmarried. Better parenting led to better social behaviour in the children.

Do better mothers become better citizens? At the 15-year followup, poor unmarried women displayed some enduring benefits. Those visited by nurses averaged fewer subsequent pregnancies, fewer months on welfare, fewer months receiving food stamps, a 79-per-cent reduction in child abuse, a 44-per-cent reduction in maternal misbehaviour due to alcohol and drug use, and 69 per cent fewer arrests. Becoming a better mother benefits that mother, the child and society.

The Elmira study focused on young unmarried white women. The Memphis sample was primarily black.

During the first two years after birth there was an 80 per cent reduction in the number of days in hospital for injuries compared to the control group.

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