A group of high school students walk through the campus gates
High schoolers are more likely to commit crimes together if they attend the same school. Richard Vogel/AP

A new study examines the role of neighborhood proximity and school segregation in the clustering of youth crime.

It is well known that crime clusters together, often in highly disadvantaged areas. Most is actually carried out in teams: People who commit crimes with one or more partners have 50 percent more arrests and are nearly 80 percent more likely to have been arrested for committing a violent crime. So what role does clustering play in finding partners to commit crimes?

That’s the question at the heart of a new study by a team of economists at Harvard, the University of Colorado, and the University of Connecticut. They developed a clever research strategy to better identify the relative role of geographic proximity in youth criminal partnerships. They posit that there are two main places where young people interact frequently and develop tight bonds: their school and their neighborhood.

The study uses data from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district in North Carolina. It compares students who live in the same neighborhood (within one kilometer) but are on different sides of a school boundary, and thus attend different high schools. The study matched data from county-level crime records to the demographic data from schools and tracked crimes committed by students ages 21 and under.

The study confirms the powerful role of neighborhood effects on criminal partnerships. In the study area, more than a quarter (28 percent) of crimes committed by people between the ages of 16 and 21 are committed in teams. These youth are much more likely to team up to commit crimes if they were former classmates. School segregation can often group disadvantaged youth together, creating an environment which may drive such crime.

Conditional Probabilities of Partnership

[Copyright American Economic Association; reproduced with permission of the AEJ: Applied Economics]

The chart above illustrates the basic pattern, comparing crimes committed by students in the same or different schools by distance from where they live. For students from different schools (the red dashed line), the probability of partnership is extremely low, no matter how close they live to one another. Distance has no effect on the chances of criminal partnership.

Compare that to students in the same grade and school: The blue line starts off at the very top left of the chart (indicating a high probability of partnership) and then declines as distance spreads the students further apart. Two young people who live in the same neighborhood (within one kilometer) are six times more likely to be arrested together if they go to the same school as opposed to different schools. But if youth of the same school live more than one kilometer apart, the probability of criminal partnership drastically drops. After that, there is very little difference between youth of the same versus different schools.

So-called peer effects also play a role, the study finds: Young people of the same age, same race, and same gender are much more likely to partner together. These patterns are most pronounced for repeat offenders or students with low test scores, more absences, and more suspensions, according to the study. All of these effects are magnified when young peers live close to one another and interact at school.

“We find evidence that neighborhood spillovers in crime based on exposure to same race and gender peers are larger when those peers are assigned to the same school,” write the authors of the study. “These effects only arise when the students reside in close proximity to each other, and the effects are strongest when the students are also assigned to the same grade … The effects of proximity on partnership are strong and decay rapidly over space.”

Criminal activity requires a high degree of trust, face-to-face interactions, and deep personal relationships that stem from physical proximity. Young people are more like to team up to become partners in crime if they are similar to one another, attend the same school, and live in the same neighborhood.

These findings have significant implications for education and school policy. School boundary policies have immense social consequences on neighborhoods and crime. “Clustering similar students together may contribute to higher rates of criminal activity among youth, greater frequency of criminal partnerships among young offenders, and larger criminal networks that facilitate future partnerships and crimes,” the authors of the study write.

The combination of neighborhood segregation and school redistricting can foster social interactions between at-risk youth which may not otherwise occur, even if the children already live near each other. Residential segregation is problematic for myriad reasons, from transportation access to environmental racism.

This study emphasizes one more on the long list: Concentrating disadvantaged students together in the same schools seems to compound criminal activity and lead to many more negative consequences for the social fabric of communities.

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