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.

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.

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."  

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. 

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:

Is There a Glass Ceiling in Corporate Crime?

Our podcast "Women Are Not Men" looked at a variety of gender gaps, including the fact that the vast majority of violent crime is committed by men. A new paper by Darrell J. Steffensmeier, Jennifer Schwartz, and Michael Roche in the American Sociological Review finds that women are less likely to be involved in corporate crime as well:

Typically, women were not part of conspiracy groups. When women were involved, they had more minor roles and made less profit than their male co-conspirators. Two main pathways defined female involvement: relational (close personal relationship with a main male co-conspirator) and utility (occupied a financial-gateway corporate position). Paralleling gendered labor market segmentation processes that limit and shape women’s entry into economic roles, sex segregation in corporate criminality is pervasive, suggesting only subtle shifts in gender socialization and women’s opportunities for significant white-collar crimes. Our findings do not comport with images of highly placed or powerful white-collar female criminals.

“Men lead these conspiracies, and men generally prefer to work with men,” Steffensmeier told the Washington Post. “If they do use women, they use them because they have a certain utility or they have a personal relationship with that woman and they trust her.”

How Does Stop-and-Frisk Change Attitudes?

New York City's "stop-and-frisk" policy has been the subject of major debates and several lawsuits in recent months.  A new paper (gated) by Stephanie A. Wiley and Finn-Aage Esbensen analyzes the relationship between "police contact" and future attitudes and actual criminal acts among children and teens:

Current police policies are based on assumptions that proactive policing strategies will not only deter crime but will also improve police–community relations. Deterrence theorists argue that general and specific deterrence can be achieved through such policing strategies. Labeling proponents, however, maintain that juveniles stopped and/or arrested by the police, rather than be deterred, will actually engage in more delinquency as a result of this contact. Research to date has provided mixed evidence. The current study seeks to inform this debate by examining the effect of being stopped or arrested on subsequent delinquent behavior and attitudes. Relying on three waves of data from a multisite sample of youth, we use propensity score matching to control for preexisting differences among youth who have and have not experienced police contact. Our findings reveal that being stopped or arrested not only increases future delinquency but also amplifies deviant attitudes.

The BPS Research Digest elaborates:

The key finding is that with participants matched for propensity, those who had contact with the police at time two (compared with those who didn't) said at time three that they'd feel less guilt if they committed various offences from theft to violence; they expressed more agreement with various "neutralisation" scenarios (e.g. it's OK to lie to keep yourself out of trouble); they were more committed to their deviant peers (e.g. they planned to continue hanging out with friends who'd been arrested); and finally, they said they'd engaged in more offending behaviour, from skipping classes to taking drugs or being violent. This pattern of results differed little whether police contact involved being arrested or merely being stopped.

Does Juvenile Incarceration Act as a Deterrent?

Is putting a juvenile offender in jail a useful deterrent or one big step in the wrong direction? That's the question asked in a new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle. It appears that the deterrence argument doesn't hold much water:

Over 130,000 juveniles are detained in the U.S. each year with 70,000 in detention on any given day, yet little is known whether such a penalty deters future crime or interrupts social and human capital formation in a way that increases the likelihood of later criminal behavior. This paper uses the incarceration tendency of randomly-assigned judges as an instrumental variable to estimate causal effects of juvenile incarceration on high school completion and adult recidivism. Estimates based on over 35,000 juvenile offenders over a ten-year period from a large urban county in the US suggest that juvenile incarceration results in large decreases in the likelihood of high school completion and large increases in the likelihood of adult incarceration. These results are in stark contrast to the small effects typically found for adult incarceration, but consistent with larger impacts of policies aimed at adolescents.

A Youth Intervention in Chicago That Works

A new NBER working paper (abstract; PDF) by University of Chicago researchers Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, and Jens Ludwig analyzes the effects of a Chicago program targeted at "disadvantaged male youth grades 7-10 from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods."  The results of the intervention look promising:

Improving the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youth remains a top policy priority in the United States, although identifying successful interventions for adolescents – particularly males – has proven challenging. This paper reports results from a large randomized controlled trial of an intervention for disadvantaged male youth grades 7-10 from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods. The intervention was delivered by two local non-profits and included regular interactions with a pro-social adult, after-school programming, and – perhaps the most novel ingredient – in-school programming designed to reduce common judgment and decision-making problems related to automatic behavior and biased beliefs, or what psychologists call cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). We randomly assigned 2,740 youth to programming or to a control group; about half those offered programming participated, with the average participant attending 13 sessions. Program participation reduced violent-crime arrests during the program year by 8.1 per 100 youth (a 44 percent reduction). It also generated sustained gains in schooling outcomes equal to 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and 0.19 standard deviations during the follow-up year, which we estimate could lead to higher graduation rates of 3-10 percentage points (7-22 percent). Depending on how one monetizes the social costs of crime, the benefit-cost ratio may be as high as 30:1 from reductions in criminal activity alone.