Can Education Reduce Violent Crime?
Rising rates of violent crime, especially homicide, have turned Latin America into one of the world’s most insecure regions over the past decade. Data from multiple sources estimate that an average of six people per day are murdered in Honduras, eight in El Salvador and 14 in Guatemala alone. Latin America’s murder rates are currently the second highest in the world—but the situation is particularly grim for young people. Based on World Health Organization estimates, homicide rates among young males in countries such as Colombia and El Salvador are among the world’s highest.
The drug trade and organized crime have aggravated the problem. In Rio de Janeiro alone, more than 6,000 children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 18 are estimated to be involved in the drug gangs that control most of the city’s favelas. At the same time, most of the almost 4 million people incarcerated throughout the region are young, uneducated males with limited labor skills and little expectation of receiving state assistance for rehabilitation.
It makes sense, therefore, to tackle the region’s crime and insecurity at its roots, where it can have the most impact: among the tragically high numbers of young people who have felt the brunt of Latin America’s crime wave, both as victims and perpetrators.
What should persuade policymakers is that other approaches to improve public safety have so far failed. Efforts to attack police corruption and implement judicial reforms have had mixed results. Many governments in the region have adapted “tough-on-crime” approaches based on punishment and segregation of specific groups of the population, which have done more harm than good. Instead of trying to address the root causes, governments lowered the age of penal responsibility, increased the severity of punishments and introduced changes in youth detention centers emphasizing police control and punishment over rehabilitation or education.
Even with the best will in the world, Latin America’s traditional criminal justice institutions have been so beset by infrastructure problems that they have been unable to implement consistent policies, and they remain particularly ill-suited to address law and order challenges related to youth violence.
Crime trends have underscored the special burden on economies and societies throughout the region. Most Latin American countries now face the challenge of defining a new perspective on fighting crime, one that is based on educational opportunities and public-private partnerships, with the support of long-term political commitment.
Could improvements in education, particularly in school retention rates, therefore, make a difference?
U.S. research suggests there is a significant relationship between increased time spent in school and a reduction in the probability of incarceration and arrest.1 Nevertheless, despite the importance of the question, there has been little debate on whether improving the quality of the region’s education would have an impact on Latin America’s rising crime rate. It’s time to have that debate, and to do the research required to inform such a debate...
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