Reducing Youth Crime in Baltimore City Through Clinical Psychology

University of Maryland (UMD) doctoral student George Zuo and his wife, Stephanie Zuo, recently received the 2017 Abell Award in Urban Policy for their unique proposal to reduce youth crime in Baltimore city through clinical psychology.

George, who just completed his first year in the UMD economics Ph.D. program, and Stephanie, who received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in May, were trying to find a research topic that would combine their interests in economics and medicine.

“My wife and I are both academics and we had always joked that it would be fun to write a paper together,” George said.

George is also passionate about youth education and empowerment. While pursuing his undergraduate degree in economics at Harvard University, he directed a non-profit youth mentoring program in Boston. After moving to Maryland, he started volunteering with Baltimore youth through both his church and the local Boys and Girls Club.

“I love working with youth but it’s really upsetting when I build a relationship with someone and in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘This kid might have a rough future,’” George said. “That’s the motivation for many of my personal research interests.”

When George came across a paper about a pilot program in Chicago that employed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a strategy for reducing youth crime and recidivism, he started thinking about ways to apply the concept to Baltimore, another city plagued by high rates of youth violence. CBT incorporates intensive counseling and clinical exercises to help individuals become more aware of their instinctive thoughts and teach them how to react to situations in a healthy manner. While CBT is normally used to treat mental health disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, it can be an effective tool for managing stressful life situations overall. In the paper they wrote together, the Zuos proposed a pilot program in Baltimore that would provide training and compensation for teachers and juvenile justice system staff to use CBT with high-risk youth populations.

For winning the Abell Award in Urban Policy, the Zuos received a $5,000 prize. George is hoping the award will help build momentum for their proposal, as he plans to expand the research during his time at UMD and use it to influence economic policy.

“Economics is about how you allocate resources,” George said. “If you have a limited amount of resources to use on things like reducing crime, you want to use it on something where you can get the most bang for your buck. There are also tons of downstream economic benefits from keeping kids out of the criminal justice system. The problem is we don’t fully understand what works, so it’s a matter of economic importance to leverage existing research to make sure we’re allocating resources in a way that’s impactful and useful.”

Sponsored by the Abell Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy, the Abell Award in Urban Policy is given annually to students who author the most compelling paper that analyzes a serious policy problem facing the city of Baltimore and proposes feasible solutions.   



George Zuo, PhD student in the Department of Economics, University of Maryland