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Posts Tagged ‘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.

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.

It's the Weather, Stupid

We’ve written in the past about how weather can have a surprisingly strong effect on things like civil war and riots. (Short story: rioters don’t like getting rained on and droughts can start a war.)

The political scientist Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard has a new paper on the topic in Public Choice (abstract; PDF) called “It’s the Weather, Stupid! Individual Participation in Collective May Day Demonstrations.” The bolding is mine:

“We investigate the possible explanations for variations in aggregate levels of participation in large-scale political demonstrations. A simple public choice inspired model is applied to data derived from the annual May Day demonstrations of the Danish labor movement and socialist parties taking place in Copenhagen in the period 1980–2011. The most important explanatory variables are variations in the weather conditions and consumer confidence, while political and socio-economic conditions exhibit no robust effects. As such accidental or non-political factors may be much more important for collective political action than usually acknowledged and possibly make changes in aggregate levels of political support seem erratic and unpredictable.”

Does a "Baby Bonus" Mean More Crime?

That’s the question asked by an Australian reader named Peter Gartlan:

In 2004, the Australian government introduced a $4,000 lump sum payment for having a baby, known as the Baby Bonus. [Note: it was judged to be somewhat effective.]

The anecdotal evidence is that this instantly created a huge wave of young unmarried teenage mothers from lower socioeconomic communities who saw the BB as a great big “free money” sign.  At the time it was also referred to as the “Plasma TV” bonus. Anyway, many teenage mothers had many babies, and received many payments. But obviously the motivation was money, not family. And $4,000 does not go very far when bringing up kids, as you know.

So after I read your “Abortion Reduces Crime” study, I wondered whether the BB would demonstrate the inverse scenario.

As you will note in this article from my local newspaper, it appears there is now evidence of the beginnings of a new juvenile crime wave.

It is easy to see how a baby bonus, like a variety of bounties we’ve explored, can have unintended consequences. It is a good research question, to be sure. (Australia is hardly the only country to have tried this.)

Adventures in Ideas: Sex Workers of the World, Unite! An Interview With Maxine Doogan

Freak Readers, It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Maxine Doogan, from the Erotic Service Providers Union. I won’t offer a lengthy introduction —I’d embarrass Maxine! — because her words below say it all. Maxine has taught me a lot about prostitution and the sex trade in general. She has been instrumental in helping me craft my own research. Together, we hope to launch the first multi-city comprehensive research study of the sex economy. In a subsequent post, I’ll ask you for some feedback on that project. For now, I want to share her insights about the sex economy today. 

Q. Our readers might be interested in understanding exactly what you are seeking that might improve the economic conditions of sex workers? By the way, how you do you define “sex worker”?  

A. To improve one’s economics is to improve their lives and the larger communities. 

An Economic Analysis of "Stop and Frisk"

A new working paper (gated) from Decio Coviello and Nicola Persico:

We analyze data on NYPD’s “stop and frisk program” in an effort to identify racial bias on the part of the police officers making the stops.    We find that the officers are not biased against African Americans relative to whites, because the latter are being stopped despite being a “less productive stop” for a police officer.


New York City’s stop-and-frisk program disproportionally impacts minorities. The New York Civil Liberties Union makes this point forcefully by documenting that, in 2011, 52.9 percent of stops were of blacks, 33.7 percent were of Latinos, while whites accounted for only 9.3 percent of the stops. This disparate impact is unfortunate, but should not be surprising if we believe that crime and therefore policing are disproportionally concentrated in minority-rich neighborhoods.

However, mere disparate impact is not the same as impermissible behavior. Discrimination law in the United States generally does not prohibit disparate impact, as long as it does not reflect an intent to discriminate. Therefore, if one is interested in impermissible behavior, it is helpful to have an empirical strategy which goes beyond merely documenting disparate impact, and can detect racial animus on the part of the police.

"Is Everything We Know About Password-Stealing Wrong?"

The next time your bank or credit-card company frantically calls and texts and e-mails you (all at the same time) to say it has noticed “suspicious activity” on your account — like buying gas in a ZIP code a bit poorer than your own — and says it has suspended your account “for your protection,” tell them to read this paper, by Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research. A key passage:

We show that, in spite of appearances, password-stealing is a bad business proposition. … It is worth, at the outset, dispelling a widely-held misapprehension about password-stealing. Thieves certainly steal passwords, and money is certainly a large part of their motivation, but when they successfully extract money from financial accounts individual consumers do not pay. In the US, Regulation E of the Federal Reserve limits consumer liability, in the event of fraud, to $50 (this is separate from the $50 limit for credit-card fraud, Regulation CC) and covers “any electronic transfer that is initiated through an electronic terminal, telephone, computer or magnetic tape.” In the US banks, brokerages, and credit unions are governed by this regulation and most go beyond it and o ffer a zero liability policy to consumers.

(HT: Peter Baehr)

What's the Real Crime Rate in China?

Official statistics would certainly suggest that crime in China is extremely low.  Murder rates in China are roughly one-fifth as high as in the United States.  According to the official crime statistics there, all crimes are rare.  China certainly feels safe. We walked the streets in rich areas and poor and not for a moment did I ever feel threatened.  Graffiti was completely absent.  The one instance where I thought I finally found some graffiti near a train station in the city of Shangrao, the spray painted message on a bridge turned out not to be graffiti, but rather a government warning that anyone caught defecating under the bridge would be severely punished.

Yet, there were all sorts of odd behaviors that made it seem like some crimes were a big problem. 

First, there seemed to be an obsession with the risk of counterfeit money.  Our tour guides felt the need to teach us how to identify fake money.  Whenever I bought something with currency, the shopkeeper went through a variety of tricks to validate the legitimacy of the bills. 

Patience and Crime

A working paper by Sergio BeraldoRaul Caruso, and Gilberto Turati looks at time preferences and their relation to crime over a five-year period in Italy. Using proxies for patience (some of which may strike some people as rather far-fetched), they found more crimes in areas where residents are more impatient and discount the future more:

In this paper we propose a first empirical test on the relationship between time preferences and crime using as a sample the whole set of Italian regions observed over the period 2002-2007. We consider both property and violent crimes. We proxy time preferences employing: 1) the amount of short-term debt to finance consumption (the consumer credit share); 2) the prevalence of obese people according to their body mass index (obesity); 3) 5 the willingness of individuals to engage in stable relationships (the marriage rate). In line with the theoretical prediction by Davis (1988), we find that where people are more impatient and discount the future more heavily, property and violent crimes are higher. In particular, the correlation between crime rates and time preferences is especially robust when time preferences are proxied both by the obesity and the marriage rates.

Are Corporate Fines High Enough to Make a Difference?

The last three months have seen several large corporate fines levied in response to various high-profile financial scandals, but an article in The Economist asks if fines are still not high enough to actually deter crime:

The economics of crime prevention starts with a depressing assumption: executives simply weigh up all their options, including the illegal ones. Given a risk-free opportunity to mis-sell a product, or form a cartel, they will grab it. Most businesspeople are not this calculating, of course, but the assumption of harsh rationality is a useful way to work out how to deter rule-breakers.

Extremely high and extremely low fines both carry costs, so The Economist suggests a middle ground: fines that offset the benefits of the crime itself.

Religion, Crime, and Television

A new survey study by Amir Hetsroni (who has also studied the difference between real doctors and TV doctors) and Hila Levenstein looks at the relationship between TV viewing and crime perception. The study, to be published next year in Psychological Reports, found a difference between religious and non-religious participants. From Ynetnews:

Yet the data collected from the 778 residents of northern Israel who watched channels 2 and 10 during prime time viewing hours in 2009 revealed some unexpected information. 

It soon became clear that among secular viewers there was a certain connection between television viewing and fear of falling victim to a crime. Whereas a situation called Counter-Cultivation was diagnosed among religious viewers. This means that the more they watched television, the less they feared becoming a victim of a crime.

Should You Be Guarding Your Old Fry Oil?

This seems like a relatively hard way for a thief to earn a living, but a 38-year-old New Yorker has been arrested for siphoning off used cooking oil from a pair of restaurants in Connecticut. From the Westport News:

Until two or three years ago, restaurateurs had to pay to get rid of used fry grease. Now they are able to sell it to a few companies in the area, who turn it into bio fuel that can be used to heat houses or operate diesel engines. …

Does Military Service Lead to Crime?

A new working paper (ungated version) by Jason M. Lindo and Charles F. Stoecker examines the link between military service (in Vietnam) and crime. It has some bad news: “We find that military service increases the probability of incarceration for violent crimes among whites, with point estimates suggesting an impact of 0.27 percentage points.”  The authors also find offsetting impacts on nonviolent crime and hypothesize that “military service may not change an individual’s propensity to commit crime but instead may cause them to commit more-severe crimes involving violence.”

Exchange Economies

A friend of ours had her purse, containing her driver’s license and passport, stolen in a German train station. She reported it to the local police, who told her that she may well get the purse back — minus any cash. Homeless people in the stations troll the trash bins for food and other goodies. When they find purses, wallets, etc., they turn them over to station police. In exchange the police do not roust them out of the stations, which they use for shelter and warmth. In fact, the police were right — the friend did eventually get some of the lost items back.

The Positive Effects of a Higher Alcohol Tax

Philip J. Cook and Christine Piette Durrance have published a working paper called “The Virtuous Tax:  Lifesaving and Crime-Prevention Effects of the 1991 Federal Alcohol-Tax Increase.” It makes a substantial argument for the upside of higher alcohol taxes:

On January 1, 1991, the federal excise tax on beer doubled, and the tax rates on wine and liquor increased as well. … We demonstrate that the relative importance of drinking in traffic fatalities is closely tied to per capita alcohol consumption across states.  As a result, we expect that the proportional effects of the federal tax increase on traffic fatalities would be positively correlated with per capita consumption. 

Where Murder Is Falling, and Rising

Encouraging news via the Associated Press: For the first time in almost half a century, homicide has fallen off the list of the nation’s top 15 causes of death. In Mexico, meanwhile, the murder trend continues to move in the opposite direction: During the first nine months of 2011, some 12,903 people were killed in drug-related violence—11% more than the . . .

The Hidden Cost of False Alarms (Ep. 69)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Hidden Cost of False Alarms.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)  

The central facts: between 94 and 99 percent of burglar-alarm calls turn out to be false alarms, and false alarms make up between 10 and 20 percent of all calls to police.

There are at least three things to consider upon learning these facts:

1. If a particular medical screening had such a high false-positive rate, it would likely be considered worse than worthless; but:

2. With more than 2 million annual burglaries in the U.S., perhaps it’s worth putting up with so many false positives in service of the greater deterrent; as long as:

3. The cost of all those false positives are borne by the right people.

Can you already figure out whether No. 3 is in fact the case?

UCLA's Crime Fighting Mathematicians

A team of mathematicians at UCLA have created an algorithm that can identify with relative accuracy which Los Angeles gang is responsible for an unsolved crime. When tested against cases with a known culprit, the mathematicians could correctly list the gang rivalry involved (out of the three most likely rivalries) about 80 percent of the time. Of these options, they ranked the responsible gang first about 50 percent of the time.

To develop their technique, the mathematicians studied a combination of solved and unsolved gang crimes throughout East L.A. over ten years. Explaining the process, author Andrea Bertozzi, director of applied mathematics at UCLA, says:

If police believe a crime might have been committed by one of seven or eight rival gangs, our method would look at recent historical events in the area and compute probabilities as to which of these gangs are most likely to have committed crime.

What's the ROI on Cold Case Investigations?

The field of forensics has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years, so much so that decades-old crime cases can sometimes be solved with DNA testing and other modern technology. In an effort to increase case clearance rates (and catch bad guys long gone) police departments have slowly opened more ‘cold case’ units over the last 20 years; a phenomenon that has been documented and dramatized on TV.

In a new RAND paper, researchers Robert C. Davis, Carl Jensen, and Karin E. Kitchens set out to measure the effectiveness of cold case units by posing a simple question, though one that’s rarely asked of police work: What’s the return on investment?