A few weeks ago, we released a podcast called “Who Runs the Internet,” which included Levitt’s thoughts on whether online mayhem, including violent video games, may actually reduce real-world violence. Here’s what Levitt had to say on the matter:
Maybe the biggest effect of all of having these violent video games is that they’re super fun for people to play, especially adolescent boys, maybe even adolescent boys who are prone to real violence. And so if you can make video games fun enough, then kids will stop doing everything else. They’ll stop watching TV, they’ll stop doing homework, and they’ll stop going out and creating mayhem on the street.
The Times of Israel recently reported on a new study confirming Levitt’s theory:
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The research, done by The Center for Educational Technology, asserts that video games — even violent ones — are beneficial for children on a scale much bigger than originally thought. The claims are in contradiction to other studies that found that extended gaming led to depression, anxiety and stunted social development, not to mention the physical effects brought on by long hours of sitting. Some studies have also linked between video games and increased violent behavior in children, arguing that simulated violence leads to real-life violence.
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.
Putting people in prison helps drive down crime but it’s not cheap, a fact that is troubling some states. So is there a way to cut incarceration rates without spiking crime? Yes, says economist Ben Vollaard in a recent article (long version) arguing in favor of “selective incapacitation”:
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The idea of selective incapacitation is to make a distinction between offenders with a high and with a low propensity to commit crime. Those of the high propensity type – the prolific offenders – are responsible for a large share of violent and property crime (Tracy et al. 1990). To them, the default penalties have little deterrent effect. By making the length of a prison sentence conditional upon an offender’s criminal record, enhanced prison sentences can be targeted at this population. After all, by repeatedly breaking the law, these offenders reveal themselves to be of the prolific type (Polinsky and Rubinfeld 1991). Once the harsher sentences apply, the penalties may begin to make a difference, if not through deterrence, then by way of incapacitation in prison.
The Times-Picayune reports on Louisiana’s prison ecosystem — and the perverse incentives for sheriffs to keep inmate numbers high:
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Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.
The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.
Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations.
A recent Reuters headline got a lot of attention on the Web. It read: “Black men survive longer in prison than out: study.” Gawker picked it up; so did The Atlantic, Yahoo, and the Grio. I tracked down the study’s author David Rosen, an epidemiology PhD and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, to see if this was actually the case. Rosen focuses his research on the health-care system inside prisons. For this latest study, he matched North Carolina prison records against state death records from 1995 to 2005, in order to compare the mortality rates of black and white male prisoners against their general population counterparts.
The results of his sample (100,000 men aged 20-79) were striking in how much they differed by race. While the total death rate of black men in prison is half that of black men in the general population, white prisoners die at about a 12% faster clip than their general population counterparts. This is essentially what a previous report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found in 2007.
Rosen was good enough to answer questions about what he feels his study says about health-care, prisons and race. Read More »
From Arelis R. Hernández at the Orlando Sentinel comes a hilariously idiotic story of a jail in Lake County, Florida, where rather than having money withdrawn from their accounts, inmates were paid to make phone calls. So much so that one man bonded out after making 77 calls and having $1,250 deposited into his account. He ended up turning himself in a few hours later. Read More »
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered California to release at least 30,000 prisoners due to poor prison conditions caused by overcrowding.
This is what economists call a “natural experiment,” or what I prefer to call an “accidental experiment.” The Supreme Court order will be a “shock” to the California prison system, leading to roughly a 10 percent reduction in the prison population there. I used this sort of accidental experiment in a paper I published back in 1996, finding a large impact of mandated prison releases on state crime rates. If my estimates remain relevant to the current time period, I predict that California violent crime rates should rise about 4 percent relative to the rest of the U.S. over the next few years. That adds up to about 80 extra homicides a year.
Five years from now, no doubt, an economics graduate student will analyze the data and tell us what the actual numbers look like. Unless, of course, I beat them to the punch!