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Cook, Ludwig, and McCrary: Setting the Agenda for Fighting Crime

With macroeconomic issues taking center stage, it is not clear that other issues, like crime, will get much attention in the Obama administration. Personally, however, I think it is an excellent time to reflect on our current approach to fighting crime.
The United States has enjoyed a great deal of success over the last 15 to 20 years in reducing crime. Crime rates today are a lot lower than they used to be, but crime still imposes enormous costs on society. In addition to the costs associated with the suffering of victims, we have one million police officers, an enormous criminal justice system, and over two million Americans behind bars.
The fight against crime has gone well, but it is reasonable to ask whether we can do better. Could we spend fewer government resources and achieve the same results? Have we gone too far in terms of punishment, or would society benefit from even harsher sentences? Should we be diverting resources away from the criminal justice system toward other interventions if our goal is to reduce crime?
Three economists I know — Phil Cook, Jens Ludwig, and Justin McCrary — have been giving a lot of thought to these questions lately. While I don’t agree with all the specifics of what they propose, I think what they are doing is important, and I’m delighted to be able to provide them the opportunity to use the blog as a forum for their ideas.
And as would be the case with any such list produced by good economists, there are plenty of ideas here that liberals will hate, and just as many to offend conservatives.
Setting the Agenda for Fighting Crime
By Phil Cook, Jens Ludwig, and Justin McCrary
A Guest Post

Virginia Senator Jim Webb has recently called for a national commission to revisit America’s criminal justice policies, and in particular the policies that have resulted in the incarceration of more than two million people. As The Times notes, “most elected officials, afraid of being tarred as soft on crime, ignore these problems.”
That political diagnosis sounds plausible to us, in the sense that most politicians and their constituents seem to believe that our only options are mass incarceration or increased crime. But that’s a lot like saying that your only choice is between spending $50,000 on a Cadillac Escalade or being housebound. It’s just not true.
Here are 10 ways to either reduce the prison population without increasing crime, or reduce both the number of prisoners and the number of crimes at the same time. Our list is motivated by some basic insights from economics that: people respond to incentives, but they also tend to discount the future, which suggests we could make the criminal justice system more productive by exchanging long prison terms for a greater likelihood of some less-severe punishment; people sometimes have trouble controlling their behaviors, particularly when drunk or high, but prohibition also comes at some cost, so we need to think carefully about how we regulate intoxicating substances; and people choose between crime and legal behavior, so improving people’s schooling and labor-market opportunities should be another component of our anti-crime strategy. Taking these basic economic ideas seriously would let us do more with less.
Improving Deterrence
1. Restore funding for the federal government’s COPS program, which provides grants to local and state police to put more officers on the street. Bill Evans at Notre Dame and Emily Owens at Cornell have shown that more COPS means less crime. Each dollar spent on the COPS program seems to generate from $4 to $8 in benefits to society.
2. Test and quickly punish probationers for the use of hard drugs. Many of the guys exiting prison fall back into bad habits and eventually recidivate. We should help them get clean by implementing an idea from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman: Test probationers frequently for hard drugs, and when they fail, rather than go through a long administrative process that may or may not lead to a lengthy prison term, just throw them in jail right away for a day or two.
3. Make greater use of intermediate sanctions. Kids who steal bikes shouldn’t go unpunished, but sending them to juvenile detention (where the annual costs can run as high as $70,000 per year) seems like a big waste of money. Why not issue fines, or some sort of onerous community service or public-sector work requirement instead, which could, for instance, require kids to show up at the local soup kitchen or hospital by 6 a.m. on weekends?
4. Treat witnesses at least as well as we treat jurors. Right now, fewer than half of violent crimes are reported to the police; the figure is even lower for property crimes. That’s pathetic. We should compensate cooperative crime victims for their medical costs and make sure other witnesses are compensated for lost earnings; and we should waste as little of their time at court as possible.
5. We should give out big rewards for tips that lead the police to gun arrests, which could reduce the prevalence of gun carrying and the number of shootings that happen each year. (See Jens Ludwig’s previous blog post on Freakonomics.)

Better Regulation of Intoxicating Substances

6. Decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana. Frito sales might go up, but crime almost surely won’t.
7. Raise the tax on booze: We don’t want to pay more for our beer, but it doesn’t seem right that it’s currently subsidized relative to its social cost. Higher taxes have been shown to reduce at least some kinds of crime. (One of us, Cook, has recently published a book called Paying the Tab from Princeton University Press that lays this out in detail.)

Improving the Life Prospects of Poor Kids

8. Spend more on early childhood education. We’ve long known that model early childhood programs like Perry Preschool reduce crime, but we’re now accumulating decent evidence that large-scale programs like Head Start might also (in part by boosting educational attainment, which is negatively associated with criminal behavior). This won’t reduce crime right away, but still, there is something appealing about teaching a little kid to sit still, share his blocks, and stop poking his neighbor as an alternative to locking him up during adolescence.
9. Improve No Child Left Behind (N.C.L.B.): Since better schooling outcomes help to steer kids away from crime, we should fix the deficiencies in N.C.L.B. by pushing for a common achievement standard for all kids (rather than let each state set its own standards, which has led to predictable gaming). We should hold schools accountable for changes in the average test scores of all students — rather than just the proportion of students who score above some threshold, which encourages schools to focus attention just on kids who are right around that proficiency cutoff. And we should even think about adding some element of student accountability to N.C.L.B. as well, which our friend Brian Jacob at the University of Michigan suggests did some good when implemented as part of school reform in Chicago back in the 1990’s.
10. Spend more on the Earned Income Tax Credit (E.I.T.C.), which supplements the incomes of working families. Research that one of us (Ludwig) has done with Brian Jacob suggests that providing extra income to poor families reduces the chances that children become involved with crime. With the economy tanking, this is a good time to use the E.I.T.C. to help families with kids at the bottom of the income distribution.
One problem with this list is that it is not ideologically consistent — there are things here for both Democrats and Republicans to hate. But our current level of political dysfunction is a separate problem that doesn’t undermine the general principle that there are ways of getting ourselves out of the “less prison versus less crime” trap.
* Philip Cook is ITT/Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, Jens Ludwig is McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and Justin McCrary is Assistant Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley. The authors are also co-directors of the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Group on the Economics of Crime, although the views here are those of the authors alone and not the N.B.E.R.