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Cost-Benefit Analysis of Developmental Crime Prevention Programmes

Children and youth who are at risk of becoming early-onset life-course-persistent offenders often slip through the cracks of other systems in society (e.g., health, education, child welfare, substance use and mental health). When they do, they impose an enormous economic ...

Published onMar 13, 2023
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Developmental Crime Prevention Programmes


Background: Children and youth who are at risk of becoming early-onset life-course-persistent offenders often slip through the cracks of other systems in society (e.g., health, education, child welfare, substance use, mental health). When they do, they impose an enormous economic burden on society. Developmental crime prevention (DCP) programmes seek to reduce these costs through evidence-based interventions that target individual child and family risk and protective factors for antisocial behaviour. Aim: This study reviewed cost-benefit analysis studies of DCP interventions to identify whether they produced monetary benefits that exceeded programme costs. Method: We searched the literature for studies of interventions that were evaluated using high-quality research methods (i.e., experimental or quasi-experimental designs). Key characteristics of these evaluations are summarized and benefit-to-cost ratios (BCRs) are reported. Results: Eleven CBA evaluations met study criteria. The programmes varied in terms of who they targeted (e.g., pregnant mothers, at-risk youth), the age of participants (e.g., adults, children, older youth), the intervention duration (e.g., 10 weeks to 4 years), and the follow-up interval (e.g., 6 months to 50 years). Ten of the 11 studies produced favourable BCRs, ranging between 1.35 and 31.77, depending on the type and scope of outcomes that were monetized. Conclusion: There is strong evidence in support of DCP from a cost-benefit perspective. However, given the small number of studies for analysis, more prospective longitudinal CBA evaluations are needed, in addition to greater consistency in the scope and methods that are used to monetize outcomes.

Keywords: cost-benefit analysis; developmental crime prevention; evidence-based practice; monetary cost of crime; randomized controlled trial (RCT).

Data availability statement: data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analyzed in this study.


It is said that the criminal justice system inherits the mistakes of all other systems (e.g., health, education, child welfare, substance use, mental health). If true, this implies that early oppor­tun­ities are missed to intervene with at-risk individuals and steer them away from a life of crime. Such failures are not trivial when one considers that early-onset life-course-persistent offenders impose an enormous economic burden on society. Cohen and Piquero (2009) estimated that the average cost of a criminal career for a high-risk youth (in the United States) ranges between $2.7 and $4.8 million (in 2007 U.S. dollars). Koegl and Farrington (2021) estimated that the average conduct-disordered boy (in Canada) accumu­lates $2.2 million (in 2019 Canadian dollars) in victim, correc­tions, and other justice system costs between the ages of 12 and 20. In addition, the top 5% of high-rate offenders in their sample were respon­sible for one-third of the overall costs, totalling $71.6 million over the span of nine years. Using a similar costing method­ology but with an older sample of young offenders in Canada, Koegl and Day (2019) estimated that the average costs per offender exceeded $5.8 million (in 2013 Canadian dollars) between the ages of 12 and 26. When aggregated, the total sample generated $2.26 billion in costs over the 15-year follow-up interval, or roughly $390,355 per offender per year.

The main aim of this paper is to review cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) of developmental prevention programmes that targeted risk factors for antisocial behaviour and delinquency.


Should developmental crime prevention (DCP) programmes identify treatment candidates based solely on early conduct problems or should they also target risk factors that have strong links to criminal behaviour? Koegl and Farrington (2021) calculated the cost of 20 individual child and family risk factors for antisocial behaviour using the Early Assess­ment Risk List for Boys (EARL-20B; Augimeri et al., 2001). Using the distribu­tion of total EARL-20B scores to divide children into quartile groups, they found that the most severe upper quartile averaged $3.5 million in costs, compared to $1.1 million in the lowest quartile. Looking at individual risk factors, children who were assessed as having antisocial attitudes at age 9 cost twice as much as children who were not ($920,657 vs. $446,243). Large significant differences were found for the presence versus absence of other risk factors, including the child’s lack of responsiveness to treat­ment ($735,328 vs 338,025), poor academic performance ($772,256 vs. $400,845), and poor coping skills ($768,416 vs. $505,164).

Given these enormous financial costs, it is important to identify and intervene early with children to address their behavioural problems and the constellation of risk factors contributing to their antisocial behaviour. This is the aim of DCP, with a particular focus on the identification and treatment of empirically-based risk and protective factors for anti­social behaviour in young children and their families. Unlike community-based and situational crime prevention, DCP seeks to mitigate the impact of single or multiple risk factors as they manifest within individuals over time. DCP programmes typically accomplish this through interventions that promote healthy child develop­ment (during pregnancy and afterwards); improving parenting capacity, confidence, and skills; and enhancing education, problem-solving, social development, and skills training for children and their parents.


Welsh, Farrington, and Raffan Gowar (2015) performed the most recent comprehensive review of CBAs of DCP programmes. They identified 10 studies that used high-quality evaluation designs and carried out CBAs. We searched the literature for more recent CBAs of these 10 studies and for new CBAs of other DCP programmes that have been reported since. In those cases where new CBAs were not available, we included the older studies in our review. Consistent with Welsh et al. (2015), our review includes only method­olog­ically rigorous evaluations. This includes experimental and high-quality quasi-experimental designs, or designs categorised as levels 3 to 5 on the scientific methods scale (Farrington et al., 2006). This is the same standard used by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) in their exten­sive CBA model of crime prevention and offender treatment programmes (Drake et al., 2009).


4.1 Study characteristics

Our search of the literature yielded 11 studies of DCP interventions with CBAs. Table 1 summarises key characteristics of the studies. Three of the studies were focussed on providing pre- and post-natal care for high-risk mothers and their infants (Nurse Family Partnership, Healthy Families New York, and Hawaii Healthy Start), three were aimed at preschool-aged children (Child-Parent Centre Early Education Programme, Perry Preschool, and North Carolina Abecedarian Programme), three were explicitly targeted at antisocial children and youth in conflict with the law (Montreal Longitudinal and Experimental Study, Stop Now And Plan, and Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programme), and two were designed to provide educational and vocational support to older, high-risk youths (Job Corps and Quantum Opportunities Programme). Programmes were offered across a range of contexts, including the family’s home, preschool centre, elementary school, community-based centres, and residential treatment settings. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was much variability in other key study characteristics. For example, programme duration and intensity ranged from a low of 12 hours of programme time delivered over 10 weeks (Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programme) to a high of approximately 2,500 hours of daycare support per year for between four and five years (North Carolina Abecedarian Programme).

[Table 1 about here]

Table 2 summarises additional key study characteristics, including details about the CBAs. Nearly all (10 out of 11) of the studies were initiated before the year 2000, the earliest beginning in 1962 (Perry Preschool). Average programme costs ranged from a low of $303 per person ($1,095 in 2022 U.S. dollars) for Job Corps to a high of $63,476 per person ($105,045 in 2022 U.S. dollars) for the North Carolina Abecedarian Programme.

[Table 2 about here]

The follow-up period during which potential programme benefits were assessed was also highly variable. Lipsey, Cordray, and Berger (1981) calculated potential monetary benefits for the Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programme based on recidivism status six months post-intervention. At the other end of the spectrum, Garcia, Bennhoff, Leaf, and Heckman (2021) assessed Perry Preschool participants at age 54 (or roughly 47 years post-intervention), making it the longest follow-up of all of the included studies. The scope of outcomes monetised was also highly variable. Table 2 shows that three of the studies monetised programme benefits for a single outcome: criminal offending for Stop Now And Plan and the Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programmes and child abuse and neglect for Hawaii Healthy Start. Many of the other studies included these outcomes, but also monetised benefits related to education (e.g., reductions in school dropout, increases in post-secondary school enrollment), employment and income (e.g., increased wages, tax contributions), health (e.g., lower rates of disease, fewer hospital visits), social service use (e.g., lower reliance on food stamps or welfare), and substance use (e.g., less drug/tobacco use).

4.2 Benefit-to-cost ratios

Table 2 reports on the benefit-to-cost ratios for the 11 studies. Eight of the 11 studies yielded desirable benefit-to-cost ratios (i.e., savings), ranging between 1.35 and 31.77 for every dollar spent. Two studies reported mixed results (Dumont et al., 2010; Schochet et al., 2006) and one yielded an unfavourable benefit-to-cost ratio (Earle, 1995). The latter programme, Hawaii Healthy Start, was evaluated by comparing 1,353 families receiving government assistance with 1,353 controls. Although the two groups differed in terms of reported abuse and neglect at follow-up (1.9% vs 5.0%), the lack of monetisation of other programme benefits likely contributed to its unfavourable benefit-to-cost ratio.

For the two studies that reported mixed results (Healthy Families New York and Job Corps), unfavourable benefit-to-cost ratios (0.15 and 0.25, respectively) were based on calculations for the total samples; favourable benefit-to-cost ratios were reported for specific sub-groups within each sample. For the Healthy Families New York programme, there were cost savings of $3.16 per dollar spent on the “Recurrence Reduction Opportunity” (RRO) sub-group, which was defined as a higher-risk sample of women with at least one prior substantiated report of child services involvement. For RRO families, most of the savings were because of reduc­tions in the use of public assistance programmes and food stamps (Dumont et al., 2010). Although the Job Corps programme was aimed at economically disadvantaged young people (ages 16 to 24 years), it was older programme participants (ages 20-24 years) who demonstrated increased productivity and employment post-intervention, yielding a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.11 (Schochet et al., 2006). The authors attributed this to the finding that older participants were highly motivated and remained in the Job Corps program 1.3 months longer, on average, compared to younger participants.

The other studies all reported favourable benefit-to-cost ratios. One of these inter­ventions, the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), targeted risk factors for antisocial behaviour before birth by intervening with high-risk mothers in the final trimester of their pregnan­cies. The mandate of NFP was to offer in-home visits from nurses who provided pre-natal care (e.g., education about healthy child development) and support for up to two years after the birth. Miller’s (2013) multi-study analysis of NFP found that the programme produced $6.20 in savings for every dollar spent, most of which was attributable to reductions in infant mortality, child maltreatment, youth crime, child injuries, and use of remedial school services.

Three studies with favourable benefit-to-cost ratios targeted preschool-aged children: the Child-Parent Centre Early Education Programme, North Carolina Abecedarian Programme, and Perry Preschool. Of these, Perry Preschool is the most well-known.  The intervention consisted of high-quality, active learning preschool programming delivered by professional teachers for 1-2 years. The curriculum was designed to provide intellectual stimulation and opportunities to develop cognitive and social skills, guided by teachers who also made weekly home visits. The most recent CBA of Perry, by Garcia and colleagues (2021), showed that the programme was highly cost-beneficial, saving $6.07 for every dollar invested. Savings were due to reductions in crime (41%), increases in income (33%), and better health outcomes (25%). Their analysis also revealed that the programme produced intergenerational effects. Factoring in siblings and children of Perry PPP participants added another $1.91 and $1.03 in savings, respectively, to yield an overall BCR of 9.01.

Also aimed at preschool-aged children, the North Carolina Abecedarian Programme consisted of full-time, high-quality daycare provided by teachers. The learning curriculum was based on educational games that promoted language and cognitive skill development. Barnett and Masse’s (2007) CBA, based on follow-up data at age 21 years, showed a favourable benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.50. Most of the monetary benefits were from increased earnings, decreased schooling costs, and decreased health care costs associated with tobacco use. However, the programme showed no effect on participation in crime -- a finding that was confirmed in a subsequent follow-up at age 30 (Campbell et al., 2012).

The other preschool intervention that generated a favourable monetary return was the Child-Parent Center Early Education Programme (CPC). The CPC provided child education and family-support services to preschool and elementary school children (i.e., aged 3-9), with the goal of bridging the transition to elementary school. The programme emphasised literacy and numeracy through a range of teacher-led activities. Focussing solely on the preschool component of CPC, Varshney, Temple and Reynolds (2022) found that it produced savings between $1.35 and $3.66 at age 37. It is worth noting that these estimates were based only on health outcomes (i.e., diabetes, smoking, and obesity), so it is possible that the programme may in the future produce additional savings in other domains. In fact, a previous CBA of the full programme, which monetised a wider range of outcomes (i.e., employment, justice system, child welfare, and education), revealed that it did, yielding benefit-to-cost ratios of 7.20 for the preschool programme, 2.11 for the school-aged programme, and 5.21 for both programmes (Reynolds et al., 2011).

Two programmes targeted disadvantaged teenagers. The Quantum Opportunities Programme (QOP) was organised around providing education, life/family skills training, and community service opportunities to students in grade 9 until high school graduation. Hahn (1994) found that the programme returned benefit-to-cost ratios of 3.04 to 3.68. Most of the savings were related to academic success: QOP partici­pants were more likely to graduate from high school and earn post-secondary degrees (Hahn, 1994). The other programme targeting older youth was the Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programme, which served two core functions: justice system diversion and delinquency prevention. Based on six-month recidivism rates, Lipsey, Cordray, and Berger (1981) found that the programme had a small desirable effect, with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.40.

The remaining two DCP programmes were geared specifically toward school-aged children mani­fest­ing conduct problems. Stop Now And Plan (SNAP) is a 12-week cognitive-behavioural programme that teaches self-control and problem solving skills to children and their parents. Farrington and Koegl (2015) estimated that SNAP produced savings of $2.05 to $3.75 in victim and criminal justice system costs, based on reduced official convictions between the ages of 12 and 20. When undetected crimes were considered, the benefit-to-cost ratios increased substan­tially, ranging between 17.33 and 31.77. Like SNAP, the Montreal Longitu­dinal and Experimental Study (MLES) was set up to meet the needs of antisocial children at a young age, by providing them with social skills and self-control training sessions (19 in total) over a period of two years. A recent CBA of the programme, by Algan and colleagues (2022), used tax filings and self-reported data to calculate monetary benefits 30 years post-intervention. Their analysis indicated that the programme was highly cost-beneficial, returning $11.08 for every dollar spent on the programme, most of which (80%) was attributed to increased wages in adulthood. More details of this long-term CBA of MLES are reported by Vanzella-Yang et al. (2023) in this special issue.


Our review of 11 studies of DCP programmes with CBAs revealed that nearly all produced desirable benefit-to-cost ratios. The monetary benefits associated with these programmes included decreased participation in crime and improvements in health, education, and employment earnings later in life. Given the high cost of these outcomes, it is clear that DCP programmes have the potential to yield economic returns even if they only produce modest treatment effects. This is especially true given that CBAs do not account for all of the costs associated with criminal offending. As shown here, CBAs typically monetise outcomes in a restricted range of domains and exclude many others. This is a limitation of our review and of CBAs more generally. A priority for future research should be to develop a more standardised accounting of outcomes so that cost-benefit ratios are more comparable with one another (see Welsh et al., 2015).

We are particularly disappointed with the small number of CBAs of DCP programmes. In the six decades since the start of Perry Preschool, why is it the case that we have only about a dozen CBAs? This poor showing indicates the need for more experimental and high-quality quasi-experimental evaluations of DCP programmes, preferably with large samples. Looking back at the two studies in our review that reported mixed CBA results, the large samples permitted analyses that showed that there were monetary benefits for certain sub-groups within the larger treated sample. Without this information, we would have (erroneously) concluded that the programmes were poor investments.

If the criminal justice system is the final venue for people who cannot get help from other (non-criminal justice system) care, we have a scientific and ethical duty to make more progress in the development, implementation, and evaluation of DCP interventions. Having rigorous and comprehensive CBAs will hopefully aid decision-makers in bringing about wise investments in preventing and reducing criminal offending.


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Table 1:  Developmental Crime Prevention Programme Characteristics

Programme name

Target population

Key Programme components

Programme Context

Participant age at admission

Typical or Average Programme duration


Nurse-Family Partnership

Low-income mothers and their newborns

Intensive pre- and postnatal home visitation by nurses to improve parenting and to promote healthy child development


57% of mothers under age 21

Target of 64 visits starting during pregnancy up to age 2


Healthy Families New York

Mothers at risk for child-abuse and neglect

Pre- and postnatal care promoting positive parenting skills, healthy child development and preventing child abuse


31% of mothers under age 19

33.3 home visits over 1.7 years


Hawaii Healthy Start

Families at risk for child abuse and neglect

Home visitation to improve parenting skills, enhance healthy child development and prevent abuse and neglect


prenatal up to age 5

4 years


Child-Parent Center Early Education Programme

Children living in high-poverty neighbourhoods

Structured preschool education, parent involvement, health and social services

Preschool centre

3 years

3 hrs/day, 5 days/week for 1-2 years


Perry Preschool Programme


Disadvantaged children with low socioeconomic and IQ scores

Preschool intellectual enrichment, parent education

Preschool, home

3-4 years

2.5 hrs weekly preschool sessions and weekly teacher home visits for 1-2 years


North Carolina Abecedarian Programme

Low income families with children at risk for intellectual and social difficulties

Intensive daycare supports to improve child’s social, emotional, cognitive and language development

Preschool centre

4.4 months, on average

Full-time support for 4-5 years or about 2,500 hrs/year


Montreal Longitudinal and Experimental Study (MLES)

Boys from low-income neighborhoods with disruptive behaviour problems

Self-control and social skills training


6 years

19 weekly sessions (each 45 minutes) over 2 years


Stop Now And Plan (SNAP)

Children under age 12 with conduct problems

Cognitive-behavioural self-control and problem solving, mentoring for children; parent-management training, parental support

Community centre

9.6 years

12 weeks of sessions for children and their parents


Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Programme

Youth at risk for continued criminal justice system contact

Youth justice system diversion and referral to social services (family counselling)


< 15 years (average)

12 hours of programming over 10 weeks


Job Corps

Economically disadvantaged students aged 16 to 24

Vocational training, education, health care to improve employability

Residential-based centre

19.1 years

8 months (average)


Quantum Opportunities Programme

Disadvantaged high school students, families

Education, social competency training

Community based agency, home

15 years (average)

1,286 hours over 4 years

Table 2:  Developmental Crime Prevention Programme Studies

Program name

Trial start year(s)

Most recent CBA study

Sample size

Follow-up interval


Average cost per participant

Benefit-to-cost ratio






social service use

child abuse/neglect

substance use


Nurse-Family Partnership

1978-2000 (range)

Miller (2013)

1,855 families

T = 743

C = 1,112

Range =

1 to 19 years









(2010 USD)



Healthy Families New York


Dumont et al. (2010)

1,173 families

T = 579

C = 594

7 years








$4,101 TOTAL

$8,475 RRO

 (2000 USD)

0.15 TOTAL

3.16 RRO


Hawaii Healthy Start


Earle (1995)

2,706 families

T = 1,353

C = 1,353

4 years









(1990 USD)



Child-Parent Centre Early Education Programme



Varshney et al. (2022)

1,539 children

T = 989

C = 550

32 years









(2021 USD)



Perry Preschool Programme


Garcia et al. (2021)

123 children

T = 58

C = 65

50 years









(2017 USD)



North Carolina Abecedarian Programme


Barnett & Masse (2007)

104 families

21 years









(2002 USD)



Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study (MLES)


Algan et al. (2022)

250 boys

T = 69

C = 181

33 years









(2020 CAD)



Stop Now And Plan (SNAP)


Farrington & Koegl (2015)

376 boys

(all in program)

9 years









(2012 CAD)


(convictions only)

17.33-31.77 (including undetected crime)


Los Angeles County Delinquency Prevention Program


Lipsey et al. (1981)

7,637 youths (all in programme)

6 months









(1980 USD)



Job Corps


Schochet et al. (2006)

11,313 youths

T = 6,828

C = 4,485

9 years








$13,844 TOTAL

$15,193 (20-24 yrs)

 (1995 USD)

Full sample: 0.25;

20–24 year olds: 2.11


Quantum Opportunities Programme


Hahn (1994)

250 youths

T = 125

C = 125

4.5 years









(1993 USD)


NOTES: T = Treatment group; C = comparison group; X = Included in benefit/outcome cost calculation; RRO = recurrence reduction opportunity sub-group; NA = not applicable or data not available; the substance use category includes tobacco use; the health category includes mental health.

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