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Society saves millions by investing in early intervention programs targeting high-risk youths, Vanderbilt researcher finds

May. 29, 2008, 3:43 PM

The value to society of saving a high-risk youth from a life of crime is between $2.6 million and $5.3 million each at age 18, according to a study by Mark Cohen of Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

Savings to society are even higher if efforts begin at age 10 – $3.2 million to $5.5 million – or by age 14 – $3.2 million to $5.8 million. Programs targeted from birth through early childhood education have a monetary value between $2.6 million and $4.4 million per child.

The findings highlight why quality high-risk intervention programs are critical, according to Cohen and co-author Alex R. Piquero of the University of Maryland‘s department of criminology and criminal justice.

"While juvenile offending behavior accounts for only a small fraction of total costs, if those juveniles can be prevented from becoming career criminals, the savings may be enormous," said Cohen, lead author of "New Evidence on the Monetary Value of Saving a High-Risk Youth." A download is available at

A higher number of brushes with the law results in higher costs to society, the researchers report. The typical high-risk youth with six or more police contacts imposes between $3.2 million and $5.8 million in costs to society over a lifetime.

The authors report that "tremendous value could be gained by targeting certain high-risk offenders" – those with multiple police contacts. The worst offenders, with 15 or more police contacts, impose costs as high as $5.8 million each.

Dropping out of high school alone results in lost productivity of between $390,000 to $580,000, bolstering arguments that high-risk youths need not only job training but encouragement to complete a high school diploma. Estimates of the cost to society for heavy drug abusers range between $840,000 and $1.1 million each.

A strong link exists between past and future criminal behavior. "These findings suggest that if these offenders can be identified early and correctly and provided with prevention and treatment resources early in the life course, their criminal activity may be curtailed," Cohen said.

The study expands on Cohen’s earlier work on the subject, first published in 1998. The new estimates further develop the costs of individual crimes included in the analysis and utilize actual police contact data. In the 1998 study, costs to society for a typical career criminal were placed at between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in 1997 dollars.

Funding for the current study was provided by YouthBuild USA through a grant from the Skoll Foundation. Support also was provided by the Dean’s Fund for Summer Research at Vanderbilt’s Owen School.

Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management is ranked as a top institution by Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Financial Times and Forbes. For more information about Owen, visit

Media Contact: Jennifer Johnston (615) 322-NEWS