Archives for crime



Does the Absence of Cash Help Cut Crime?

A new working paper (abstract; ungated PDF not available) by Richard Wright, Erdal Tekin, Volkan Topalli, Chandler McClellan, Timothy Dickinson, and Richard Rosenfeld analyzes the effects of delivering welfare benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) instead of checks (which are easily converted to crime-fueling cash):

It has been long recognized that cash plays a critical role in fueling street crime due to its liquidity and transactional anonymity. In poor neighborhoods where street offenses are concentrated, a significant source of circulating cash stems from public assistance or welfare payments. In the 1990s, the Federal government mandated individual states to convert the delivery of their welfare benefits from paper checks to an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, whereby recipients received and expended their funds through debit cards. In this paper, we examine whether the reduction in the circulation of cash on the streets associated with EBT implementation had an effect on crime. To address this question, we exploit the variation in the timing of the EBT implementation across Missouri counties. Our results indicate that the EBT program had a negative and significant effect on the overall crime rate as well as burglary, assault, and larceny. According to our point estimates, the overall crime rate decreased by 9.8 percent in response to the EBT program. We also find a negative effect on arrests, especially those associated with non-drug offenses. EBT implementation had no effect on rape, a crime that is unlikely to be motivated by the acquisition of cash. Interestingly, the significant drop in crime in the United States over several decades has coincided with a period of steady decline in the proportion of financial transactions involving cash. In that sense, our findings serve as a fresh contribution to the important debate surrounding the factors underpinning the great American crime decline.



Women Are Not Men: A Freakonomics Radio Rebroadcast

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of a show about all the ways that “Women Are Not Men.”  (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) We take a look at the ways in which the gender gap is closing, and the ways in which it’s not. You’ll hear about the gender gap among editors of the world’s biggest encyclopedia, and what a study conducted in Tanzania and India has to say about female-male differences in competition. You’ll also hear about the female happiness paradox and one of the biggest gender gaps out there: crime. Which begs the question: if you’re rooting for women and men to become completely equal, should you root for women to commit more crimes?



The Hitmen

New researchreported on by Mark Townsend in The Guardian, explores the habitual behavior of a small sample of British hitmen. Here’s Townsend’s summary:

The killers typically murder their targets on a street close to the victim’s home, although a significant proportion get cold feet or bungle the job, according to criminologists who examined 27 cases of contract killing between 1974 and 2013 committed by 36 men (including accomplices) and one woman.

…The reality of contract killing in Britain tended to be striking only in its mundanity, according to David Wilson, the university’s professor of criminology. He said: “Far from the media portrayal of hits being conducted inside smoky rooms, frequented by members of an organized crime gang, British hits were more usually carried out in the open, on pavements, sometimes as the target was out walking their dog, or going shopping, with passersby watching on in horror.”

Researchers found that the average cost of a hit was £15,180, with £100,000 being the highest and £200 the lowest amount paid. The average age of a hitman was 38 with the youngest aged 15 and the oldest 63.

Read More »



Reducing Recidivism Through Incentives

Ryan Bradley, writing for CNNMoney, highlights an interesting policy experiment currently underway in New York City: a social impact bond geared at reducing recidivism:

They are called “social impact bonds.” The first, issued in 2012 by Goldman Sachs (GS), is underway in New York City for $9.6 million. The money is going toward a four-year program to reduce reincarceration of juveniles at Riker’s Island prison. Goldman Sachs has a vested interest in the success of this program. If participants stop returning to jail at a rate of 10% or greater, Goldman will earn $2.1 million. If the recidivism rate rises above 10% over four years, Goldman stands to lose $2.4 million. In a recent report, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law calls this a “bet on success … instead of using the typical model of privatization, in which private prisons generally bet on failure (i.e. the more prisoners, the better).”

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit that, among other things, helps former convicts avoid reincarceration for minor parole violations, believes the idea could be “transformative.”   Read More »



Child Trafficking and the Internet

Chatting with a seatmate on a flight, I learned she was attending a conference, hosted by Shared Hope International, on domestic trafficking in minor children. Naively and optimistically, I asked if this problem has been diminishing.  No, quite the contrary.  Why?  The reason appears to be economic, having to do with technological change and technology transfer.  With the internet, it is much easier to engage in transactions — nothing needs to be done face-to-face, thus reducing the risk to traffickers. Also, organized crime is getting involved since the trade is so profitable, as at-risk children can be traded repeatedly (unlike an ounce of crack cocaine). With some modifications, an established drug network can be used as a child-sex network.  Disgusting, horrible, and a negative side-effect of technological progress.  (HT: JM)



Don’t Remind Criminals They Are Criminals

Psychologists have long argued about the power of priming, i.e the power of subtle cues and reminders to influence behavior.  For instance, there are a number of academic papers that find that if you make a woman write down her name and circle her gender before taking a math test, she will do substantially worse than if she just writes her name.  The idea is that women perceive that they are not good at math, and circling their gender reminds them that they are women and therefore should be bad at math.  I’ve always been skeptical of these results (and indeed failed to replicate them in one study I did with Roland Fryer and John List) because gender is such a powerful part of our identities that it’s hard for me to believe that we need to remind women that they are women! 

In an interesting new study, “Bad Boys: The Effect of Criminal Identity on Dishonesty,” Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, and Thomas Noll find some fascinating priming effects.  They went into a maximum security prison and had prisoners privately flip coins and then report how many times the coin came up “heads.”  The more “heads” they got, the more money they received.  While the authors can’t tell if any one prisoner is honest or not, they know that on average “heads” comes up half the time, so they can measure in aggregate how much lying there is.  Before the study, they had half the prisoners answer the question “What were you convicted for?” and the other half “How many hours per week do you watch television on average?”  The result: 66 percent “heads” in the treatment where they ask about convictions and “only” 60 percent “heads” in the TV treatment.  Read More »



Pirate Economics, Somali Edition

An Economist article looks at a new study by the International Criminal Police Organization, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and World Bank on the economics of Somali piracy, including pirate earnings:

The authors interviewed current and former pirates, their financial backers, government officials, middlemen and others. They estimate that between $339m and $413m was paid in ransoms off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012. The average haul was $2.7m. Ordinary pirates usually get $30,000-75,000 each, with a bonus of up to $10,000 for the first man to board a ship and for those bringing their own weapon or ladder.

The article also explores the financing and profit of pirate expeditions, and how ransom money trickles down: Read More »



Women Are Not Men

Season 4, Episode 1

Women are different from men, by a lot, in some key areas. For example, data show that women don’t: drown, compete as hard, get struck by lightning, use the Internet, edit Wikipedia, engage in delinquent behavior, or file patents as much as men do – and these are just some of the examples. Another way women are different from men? They have made significant economic gains and yet they are less happy now than they were 30 years ago. So, how do we explain this paradox? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner looks at some of the ways that women are not men. Later in the hour, Dubner talks to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker about his research on the history of violence. Pinker has a surprising and counterintuitive thesis: violence has declined and the world is a much more peaceful place than it has ever been.