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Even Levitt Wouldn’t Have Proposed This Crime-Fighting Measure

The official murder rate in New Orleans has dropped to zero. The last recorded murder in the city occurred on Aug. 27, two days before Hurricane Katrina. It seems that Katrina, along with ruining a few hundred thousand lives, also dispatched most of the criminals, particularly the drug dealers and their customers. As N.O. criminologist Peter Scharf told the New York Times in this fascinating article, the hurricane was “one of the greatest crime-control tools ever deployed against a high-crime city.” If Mr. Scharf wants some advice in dealing with the inevitable blowback of making such a statement, perhaps he should get in touch with Anthony Bouza, the former police chief of Minnesota who once called abortion “arguably the only effective crime-prevention device adopted in this nation since the late 1960’s.” To my ear, Scharf sounds downright freakonomical when he further describes the crime scenario in New Orleans: “This is one of the most interesting experiments in crime we’ve ever seen. Without effective courts, corrections, or rehabilitation, we have reduced the crime rate by 100 percent.”

In this Freakonomics column about the self-experimenter Seth Roberts (who, by the way, is now writing a book about his Shangri-La diet), we describe a desirable but impossible experiment that would measure the relationship between incarceration and the crime rate. What Steve Levitt could only imagine, Hurricane Katrina has seemingly achieved. I am guessing that at least a few criminologists, economists, and others are currently hatching ways to harness the power of this accidental experiment in the interest of science.