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Posts By John Roman
John Roman, Ph.D. is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where his research focuses on evaluations of innovative crime control policies and justice programs. Dr. Roman is also the executive director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute (DCPI) and manages DCPI’s operations, provides oversight of all research, and leads the development and implementation of the cost-benefit model. He directs several studies funded by the National Institute of Justice, including two randomized trials of the use of DNA in property crime investigations, an evaluation of post-conviction DNA evidence testing to estimate rates of wrongful conviction, and a study developing a blueprint for the use of forensic evidence by law enforcement. Dr. Roman is the coeditor of Cost Benefit Analysis and Crime Control, and, Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse and the author of dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters. Dr. Roman serves as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University.Links: http://dccrimepolicy.org/http://www.urban.org/expert.cfm?ID=JohnRoman
| Posted: November 1st, 2013
On the same day as the Navy Yard mass killing, new FBI data showed that the violent crime rate declined in 2012 for the sixth year in a row.
Most Americans wouldn't believe it. Gallup has asked Americans in five out of the last six years whether they thought there was more crime in their area than the prior year. Each year, less than a third of respondents say that crime is going down. The sad juxtaposition of the mass murder and the release of crime data makes clear why there is such a disconnect, but the perception that America is getting more dangerous is not supported by the facts.
Here are 10 other popular crime myths and the true story behind them:
Myth #1: Crime is getting worse, if not in your neighborhood then certainly in the "bad parts" of town, which are much more dangerous than when you were a kid.
Fact: If you are under 40, on average you are safer now than you have ever been.
Myth #2: Suburbs are safer than cities.
Fact: True, on average, but the trend is better for cities than suburbs. At the peak of the crime wave in 1991, there were 138 homicides in Prince George's County and 479 in Washington, D.C. Last year, there were 82 homicides in PG (down 40 percent) and 82 in D.C. (down almost 75 percent).
Myth #3: Criminal investigators have enormous data systems at their fingertips that track virtually everything about all of us.
Fact: Police do have access to lots of data, but typically use it to find a known suspect rather than identify an unknown suspect.
Myth #4: Forensic examiners (CSIs) investigate crimes, carry weapons, and can process complex crimes in minutes.
Fact: The typical piece of DNA collected from a crime scene takes months to process (if it is at all) and the civilian processing it is not aware of the facts of the crime.
Myth #5: Most crimes are solved by fingerprints and DNA.
Fact: Less than 1 percent of all serious crimes are solved by DNA, and fingerprints do only slightly better.
Myth #6: Fingerprints can definitively match a person to a crime scene.
Fact: Fingerprint matches are entirely subjective and we have no idea whether the cliché that all fingerprints are unique is actually true.
Myth #7: There is an epidemic of children being kidnapped from their homes in the dead of night.
Fact: The FBI estimates that in 2008 a total of 115 children were kidnapped by strangers. A child is more than five times more likely to drown than be kidnapped.
Myth #8: There are two typical types of offenders:
- One is the brilliant loner psychopath who commits serial crimes and can't be caught without the aid of large task forces, luck, and equally brilliant loner detectives.
- Fact: Most criminals are far less educated, poorer, and sicker than the average American.
- Type two is the ruthless, soulless gang-banger who can only be contained (but never defeated) by armies of police.
- Fact: Gang members are typically teenagers, generally in a gang for about a yearbefore voluntarily leaving, and commit as many crimes against their fellow gang members as others.
Myth #9: Serial killers account for many murder victims.
Fact: Out of almost 15,000 homicides in 2010, perhaps 1 percent were victims of a serial killer, while four times as many were victims of infanticide.
Myth #10: There are a lot of adolescent predators on the loose.
Fact: At any given time, there are very few juveniles whose behavior has warranted a placement in secure confinement. In New York City, on any given day there are only about 250 youth in secure confinement.
[Illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute. Crime scene photo from Shutterstock.]
Filed under: Crime |Tags: crime, crime facts, crime in the united states, crime myths, john roman, justice, justice policy, justice policy center, Urban Institute, violence 2 Comments »
| Posted: October 29th, 2013
This morning, I submitted written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the effect of Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws on civil rights and public safety.
There are racial disparities throughout the juvenile and criminal justice system in America. African Americans are more likely to be stopped and frisked, to have their motor vehicle searched at traffic stops, and to receive longer prison sentences than are whites.
One area of possible racial disparity—differences in findings that a homicide was ruled justified prior to a trial—had little attention before the investigation and trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Using data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR), my research examined the effects of racial disparities in justifiable homicide findings on public safety:
- Are there racial disparities in the justification of homicides? That is, are homicides by shooters of differing races, or involving victims of different races, ruled justified at different rates?
- Is the degree of disparity higher in states that have SYG laws than in states that do not?
- In states with SYG laws, did the degree of disparity increase or decrease when SYG laws were passed?
The answer to the first question is clearly yes. The starkest contrast is between homicides of blacks committed by whites, of which 11.4 percent are justified, and homicides of whites committed by blacks, of which 1.2 percent are justified.
The answer to the second question is also clearly yes. States with SYG laws have higher disparities than states without SYG laws.
The answer to the third question is the most complex and relies on the smallest set of data. My preliminary answer to this question, too, is yes.
These findings have substantial implications. Justification of homicides is used in a racially disparate manner, and more so in states with SYG laws. Whether SYG laws are more likely to be enacted in those states with more disparity in justifications, and whether SYG laws increase the degree of disparity, or both, is not yet completely clear. But the implications are disturbing regardless.
The purpose of enacting SYG is to increase the rate of justifiable homicide findings. In doing so, SYG could make disparities better, worse, or keep them constant. There is no evidence SYG reduces disparities in the SHR data. If it makes disparities worse, as our study suggests, that is poor policy. If it simply keeps the disparities the same but increases justifiable homicide findings, then it increases the number of people exposed to the disparity, which is also poor public policy.
Finally, I note that 'racial disparity' is a value-free term. It simply reflects the objective observation that the likelihood of an event (in this case a justified homicide finding) varies systematically by race. It is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition to conclude that racial animus is the cause of the disparity.
I note that in John Lott’s written testimony for the hearing, he concludes that my data support the opposite of what I have described above. More on that later this week.
Filed under: People, Quality of Life |Tags: homicide, race, stand your ground, SYG, Trayvon Martin, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: October 4th, 2013
The violent crime rate in America has declined 19 out of the last 21 years. So what happened in the two years—2005 and 2006—when violence (and muggings in particular) went up? Ninety million iconic iPods were sold, marking the beginning of a revolution in mass communication.
In addition to connecting us in novel ways, the iPod and its distinctive white ear buds, $400 price tag, and tuned-out users were new and inviting targets for criminals. Almost a decade later, iCrime continues to claim a big share of urban crime.
Now, finally, we are being told there is a solution. iOS7, Apple’s new operating system for personal media devices, contains a “kill switch” that allows users to electronically disable a lost or stolen device.
So, will this stop iCrime? Maybe, but it is a costly approach— and there is an even better solution.
People steal devices because there is a market where they can profitably be re-sold. Demand for stolen devices is driven by below (legal) market prices. So the key to reducing iCrime is to either raise the price for the customer, or raise the price for the thief by making the theft too risky an endeavor.
The kill switch in iOS7 raises the price for the purchaser of a stolen device. Purchasing a below-market price device contains some risk, and risk increases the effective price. The kill switch raises that price. Sophisticated sellers of stolen devices can get around the kill switch by jailbreaking the phone. Unsophisticated sellers will just sell inoperable phones. Either way, the device’s value is greatly (or totally) diminished and that effectively raises the price.
That should reduce iCrime, at least for some Apple products.
But on the flip side, we know how to raise the price for the thief, and that’s a better solution.
In 1990, there were over 100,000 vehicles stolen in New York City. Last year, there were only about 10,000. A big part of the reduction is insurance companies fighting insurance fraud. Much of the rest is about better standard security on motor vehicles. But it is also about LoJack.
Once the police are notified that a LoJack-equipped car has been stolen, the LoJack is activated and officers are alerted when they are proximate to a stolen car and can recover it, hopefully with the thief still in it.
LoJack increases the risk of detection, apprehension, and incarceration. And the fact that it’s invisible means that thieves have no way of knowing which cars have it, so even non-LoJacked cars benefit from the technology’s protection. As a result, a lot of potential car thieves have been priced out of the car theft market.
A similar setup for recovering stolen devices is easy to imagine. The technology already exists and it would be easy to implement a LoJack-like arrangement between police and internet service providers. Similar policing arrangements have been used successfully for decades.
There are two barriers that have nothing to do with technology. One is that a stolen device may not be worth enough to for the victim to even bother with a police report, especially if the device’s value is close to or below their insurance deductible.
A bigger problem is that because these are relatively low-dollar crimes, law enforcement may not prioritize their investigation even if the crime is reported. In many police agencies, the thinking is that the crime itself probably won’t lead to jail time, so why divert officers from more serious crimes to chase down stolen tablets?
That line of thinking is a big mistake and a huge missed opportunity. Law enforcement should prioritize these cases because they are a cheap sorting mechanism. Some of New York City’s much-ballyhooed crime reduction was purportedly due to police actively booking low-level offenders for things like turnstile jumping because it was a cheap way to find lots of people with outstanding warrants for serious crimes. The same goes for chasing down iPerps.
While the iCrime itself may not be worth the time, some of the iPerps certainly will be.
So while the iOS7 kill switch may help slow iCrime, good old-fashioned law enforcement may be even better.
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: apple, crime, iCrime, iOS7, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: September 23rd, 2013
Last week, the FBI released the final 2012 crime statistics. Overall, per capita violent crime was down ever so slightly (from 387.1 per 100,000 in 2011 to 386.9 this year). Property crime was down 1.6 percent from 2011.
Violent crime rates are down for the 7th year in a row, and down for the 18th year out of the last 20.
Property crime rates are down for the 12th year in a row, and 19th year out of the last 20.
Since 1991, violent crime rates have fallen by half, while property crime is down about 45 percent. So what’s driving the decline?
In a series of three weekly blog posts, I’ll be examining the economy’s impact on crime rates. Here, I lay out the long view, to see whether there is a relationship between big macroeconomic forces and crime. Next week, I’ll focus on the last 20 years, to see if the story has changed. Finally, I’ll look at the last five years to see if the relationship between crime and the broader economy has changed once again.
The goal is to investigate the idea that big economic forces are not driving recent crime decline, and that the crime decline is about meso-level—not macro—forces affecting cities and their economies, but maybe in a different way than you would expect.
It’s tempting to suggest that big macroeconomic factors explain crime trends. It certainly is easy to find stories that predicted a new crime wave as the economy tanked in 2008. But it’s a difficult hypothesis to test, since crime obviously affects macroeconomic factors as well as being affected by them.
Criminologists tend to say that tough economic times make more people willing to commit crimes. Bad economies lead to more property crimes and robberies as criminals steal coveted items they cannot afford. The economic anxiety of bad times leads to more domestic violence and greater consumption of mind-altering substances, leading to more violence in general.
Economists tend to argue the opposite, that better economic times increase crime. More people are out and about flashing their shiny new smartphones and tablets, more new cars sit unattended in parking lots, and there are more big-screen TVs in homes to steal. Better economic times also mean more demand for drugs and alcohol, and the attendant violence that often accompanies their consumption.
But as the figures below show, the relationship between crime and the economy is not as obvious as it seems, and focusing on that relationship obscures more important predictors.
Looking at the relationship between GDP and crime back to the earliest reliable crime data from 1960 supports both positions, suggesting there is no relationship between economic growth and crime. In the first part of the series, rising GDP is associated with rapidly increasing crime. In the second part, it is associated with declining crime. In the middle, there is no relationship at all.
Most macroeconomic data show the same pattern. Consider consumer confidence data going back to the inception of the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment data in 1978.
Again, the consumer confidence data show no relationship between consumer sentiment and crime rates. That, however, is because the relationship was strongly negative prior to 1992 (meaning more confident consumers=less crime). After 1992, the pattern reverses, and the better the economy, the more crime there is.
The bottom line: Crime is episodic and there is no singular effect of the economy on crime. In order to understand and prevent crime, it is therefore necessary to understand what type of period we are in. It’s also necessary to understand what forces are at work locally, rather than focus on the national picture. Next week, I will address that point.
Filed under: Economy, Quality of Life |Tags: crime, decline, economics, economy, john roman, macro, Urban Institute 2 Comments »
| Posted: September 9th, 2013
Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced that it had reached an internal agreement on the parameters authorizing the Obama administration to use military force in Syria. The administration’s stated goal of military intervention is to deter and degrade the Assad administration’s ability to serially mass murder its own citizens. This week, the full Congress will take up the issue and debate the limits on the U.S. military’s use of force.
If the congressional military authorization limits the military to a level of engagement short of the removal of Assad, the whole debate can be neatly summarized as one designed to establish the performance targets that will signal victory. It will answer the question of what needs to be accomplished in Syria in order for the US and its allies to have “won.”
It also raises an interesting corollary question. If we as a nation cannot engage in military action without a consensus about how it fits with broader strategic goals, the specific objectives of the mission, and performance targets to define success, why are we willing to engage in social policy without defining any of those critical first principles?
Consider my area of study, crime and justice. Crime is extraordinarily expensive, causing perhaps as much as $2 trillion in harms annually. More than 7 million Americans are under criminal justice system supervision at any given time. There are more than 14,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. with more than one million employees. Private security forces also employ about one million people (and interestingly enough, this one-to-one ratio of public law enforcement to private security mirrors the ratio of U.S. soldiers to private contractors in Iraq at the height of the war).
Thus, it seems reasonable to expect that the sheer scale of the crime problem in the U.S. demands the identification of first principles of crime fighting similar to those under discussion with respect to Syria.
Today, the U.S. is about as far away from consensus on crime fighting as a unified nation can be. For instance, the predominant policing strategy in America today—though by no means the only policing strategy—is what is known as hot spots policing or COMPSTAT. The strategy is employed by as many as 70 percent of law enforcement agencies.
The general idea is that police keep detailed data not only on the number and types of crimes, but also where and when the crimes occur. This allows police to identify times and places that become “hot” (i.e., experience an unusual amount of crime in a short period of time). The approach is intuitive, and has been credited by its proponents with substantially reducing crimes (although there are critics as well).
One criticism that has received too little attention is that this approach, in its most basic form, simply seeks to drive crime back to baseline levels. It’s the Whack-A-Mole approach to policing—as long as crime rates don’t shoot up to conspicuous levels, everyone is off the hook.
This helps explain why the U.S. tolerates astonishingly high levels of crime. The U.S. homicide rate is four times greater than Canada’s, more than 10 times greater than Japan’s, and higher than every single NATO country and most of Eastern Europe.
A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of federalism, which prohibits a national policing authority and thus prevents best practices from being rolled out nationwide.
But perhaps the Syria debate can shake loose some creative thinking about the criticality of first principles and objective performance targets. We should have a national dialogue about how much crime we are actually willing to tolerate and set performance targets that define what is acceptable.
We should also follow the lead of our colleagues in the education sector, who face the same barriers from federalism, but have managed to create—without the federal government—Common Core State Standards for education that define success for schools and students.
If it is important enough to set defined goals for education and military interventions, it is certainly important enough to do so to fight crime.
Syrian flag illustration by Tim Meko, Urban Institute
Filed under: Crime, Government |Tags: crime, performance measurement, policy analysis, Syria, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: July 26th, 2013
Over the last year, I have written several articles about racial disparities in findings that a homicide was justified. Recently, two pieces in particular have captured some attention, one published by PBS Frontline, and one on this blog. Many readers have expressed interest in learning more about the methods I used to arrive at the conclusion that the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justifiable is less than 10 percent of the odds that a white-on-black shooting is ruled to be justified.
Today, I have a full report that documents the methods used in previous posts and that includes all the study results. For the skeptics, you can download the data yourself here, and if you email the public affairs team, we will send you the SAS code I used to perform the analysis.
There are two items to note in the new analysis. First, the analysis includes an additional year of data (2010) that was not available at the time the PBS Frontline piece was written. That article reports my finding that the odds a white-on-black homicide was ruled to be justified were 254 percent higher than white-on-white homicides. The new analysis finds the odds are 281 percent higher. The difference, I believe, is due to a trend in justifiable homicide findings. A regression analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports from 2005 to 2010 finds that the odds a homicide is ruled to be justified have increased about 10 percent a year, which validates the change in the new data.
Finally, one bit of detail from the analysis of the FBI data that is important to understand the findings: In the FBI data, a homicide is said to be justified if it is coded as the “killing of a felon by a private citizen”; that is, in order for a law enforcement finding of self-defense, it must be the case that the perpetrator feared for his or her life. If you give anyone a reason to fear for their life, you are committing a felony.
Photo by Tim Meko, Urban Institute
Filed under: Crime, People |Tags: homicide, race, stand your ground, Urban Institute 1 Comment »
John Roman Shebani Rao
| Posted: July 19th, 2013
On Tuesday, we wrote about our analysis of FBI data that describe the circumstances under which fatal shootings are more likely to be considered justified. We described the stark disparity between the rates of justifiable rulings in cases with a white shooter and a black victim compared to those in which the races were reversed. This racial disparity, we argued, is greater than any other in the criminal-justice system and threatens the notion that justice in America is colorblind to its core.
On RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen offers a different perspective. He argues that the racial discrepancy between the rates of justifiable-homicide rulings should not necessarily be taken as evidence of racial bias within the criminal-justice system. Instead, he suggests that these discrepancies may be explained by the differing rates of violent offending between blacks and whites more generally.
His was a compelling piece, and one worth investigating a little further. We have seen this argument in a variety of forms in response to a chart that has been flying around the Internet this week. It is clear why this line of thinking is tempting, but there is a flaw in the logic. This logical flaw, formally known as an ecological fallacy, is common in discussions about racial disparity and often leads to a conclusion that a racial disparity is reasonable when it actually is not.
VerBruggen states that “in a given year, 3.3 of every 1,000 blacks are victimized by white offenders and 3.4 of every 1,000 whites are victimized by black offenders.” He points out that while these victimization rates are nearly identical, actual rates of offending within the population are likely to be very different given that the white population is several times larger than the black population. (In 2010, the population of the United States included 223.5 million white Americans and 38.9 million black Americans.)
Using the victimization rates that VerBruggen provides, we can calculate that there were approximately 737,000 instances of violent victimization of white Americans by black Americans in 2010 and only 128,000 when the races were reversed, a difference of nearly six-fold.
VerBruggen makes an important point about differences in violent offending by race. The conclusion that he draws from this data seems to be that, due to these racially disparate numbers of offenses, you would expect to see higher rates of justifiable rulings in white-on-black crimes compared to black-on-white crimes.
To explore the issue further, suppose we assume that a racially unbiased system would have the same rates of justifiable rulings regardless of race. To see what that would look like, we use the average rate homicides are ruled justifiable from the FBI data -- 2 percent. At the 2 percent FBI rates, we would expect to find that out of 128,000 white on black victimizations reported in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data, about 2,500 would be ruled justifiable. And, out of the 767,000 black-on-white victimizations almost 15,000 would be ruled justified. However, if instead we use the actual rates from the FBI data at which white-on-black homicides are ruled to justified (11.41 percent) and black-on-white homicides are adjudicated justfied (1.2 percent), it paints a very different picture: Using these numbers, 14,600 white on black victimizations would be ruled justified, compared to only 8,800 black on white victimizations. Thus, it is clear that racial disparities in homicide rulings remain.
The reason it is so easy to come to the wrong conclusion that the racial disparity is reasonable is what is known as the ecological fallacy, which is mistaking trends in groups for individual behavior. The original example is a half-century-old study that found that immigrants settled in states that studies found to be abnormally illiterate. The implication is that immigrants are more likely to be illiterate. In fact, immigrants were more literate than average; they just settled overwhelmingly into states with higher than average illiteracy rates.
In the case of the racial-disparity data, the ecological fallacy would be inferring that blacks should have a lower rate of justifiable rulings because they are more likely to be the perpetrator. There is no reason to believe from the offending patterns alone that the racial disparities are somehow reasonable.
Shell casings image from Shutterstock
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: homicide, race, stand your ground, SYG, Trayvon Martin, Urban Institute 4 Comments »
| Posted: July 16th, 2013
Noting that there are racial disparities in the American criminal justice system is hardly newsworthy. From stop-and-frisk to motor vehicle searches at traffic stops to sentencing, racial disparities abound in modern America. However, until the George Zimmerman trial for Trayvon Martin’s death, one gaping disparity had received little attention.
Black Americans are far less likely to be adjudicated as justified in using deadly force in a firearm-related death. The difference between rates of justifiable rulings in cases with a white shooter and a black victim and cases with a black shooter and a white victim are astonishing.
In fact, they dwarf every other racial disparity in an already racially unbalanced criminal justice system. The differences are so great that any notion that justice in America is color-blind is at risk.
The numbers below require little explanation. Drawing from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI between 2005 and 2010, we see that in cases with a white shooter and a white victim, the shooting is ruled to be justified less than 2 percent of the time. If the shooter is black and the victim is white, the rate of justifiable homicide rulings drops to almost 1 percent. However, if the shooter is white and the victim is black, it is ruled justified in 9.5 percent of cases in non-Stand Your Ground (SYG) states. In SYG states, the rate is even higher—almost 17 percent.
Now consider the situation that occurred in the Zimmerman case (and I note that none of these facts are in dispute). When there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who are strangers, neither is law enforcement, and a firearm is used to kill, a little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled to be justified. When the races are reversed, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-SYG states and almost 36 percent in SYG states.
The one gap in the SHR data is the setting where the homicide occurred. If it turns out that almost all the white-on-black homicides occur in residences or businesses and almost all the black-on-white homicides happen on the street, then perhaps there is no racial animus. But if you look through data compiled by the Tampa Bay Tribune on cases in which a SYG defense was used, you do not see much of a difference in setting. Some may think that white-on-black shootings are justified more often because it involves the black person as an intruder while black-on-white shootings happen in different scenarios. This is not the case. Black-on-white shootings also occur in the shooter’s home.
None of this is definitive. The answer to the question being asked across America today—would the verdict have been different if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed—is unknowable. But the available statistical evidence certainly suggests that Zimmerman walked into the courtroom with an advantage that Trayvon Martin would not have had.
Filed under: Quality of Life |Tags: florida, george zimmerman, homicide, john roman, race, stand your ground, SYG, Trayvon Martin, Urban Institute 14 Comments »
| Posted: July 9th, 2013
In Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discuss how the government can help citizens make better decisions by acting as “choice architects” who have “the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Throughout the social sciences, academics are thinking about how this simple idea can be used to frame choices for the people who receive public services. Policymakers are reframing how they see the consumers of their services; instead of being viewed as passive recipients of government programs, these individuals – whether they are prisoners, drug addicts, or chronically homeless - are increasingly considered clients within the system, for whom choices can thoughtfully be framed.
One useful application of this concept is to consider how prisoners’ decision-making processes can be shaped to reduce crime. This can potentially be done by leveraging the power of one of the most effective investigative tools of the day: DNA evidence. Over the last decade, most states have expanded their DNA collection programs to include most convicted offenders, as well as some arrestees, in their databases. Evidence from crime scenes can then be matched against these databases to identify and apprehend otherwise unknown suspects. Our research at the Urban Institute has found that the collection and processing of DNA evidence can increase the probability of identifying an unknown suspect tenfold. Clearly, the effectiveness of criminal investigations can be greatly enhanced through the use of this technology.
In addition to apprehending suspects, this technology may have an additional benefit of deterring offenders from committing future crimes. The logic of deterrence is straightforward: A rational actor will commit a crime only if he or she perceives that the benefits of doing so exceed the costs. If people leaving prisons are rational actors, the knowledge that their DNA has been collected and retained for future investigations should, in theory, cause them to commit fewer crimes by increasing their perceived risk of engaging in criminal activity.
In practice, however, the business of shaping offenders’ behavior is much more complicated. Much debate exists among criminologists, sociologists, and economists about the extent to which criminal offenders truly are rational actors. Some argue that people who commit crimes have poor decision-making skills and place a low value on their future. A recent study conducted by Avi Bhati investigated the deterrent effects of DNA evidence by testing whether adding a convicted offender to a DNA database changed their subsequent behavior. He found that while adding someone to a database greatly increased the chance that they would be identified during a criminal investigation, it had virtually no effect on their future offending.
Although deterrence theory is not without controversy, many new criminal justice interventions are predicated on the concept that offenders behave as rational actors. Modeled off the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, recent interventions are based on the simple idea that if the certainty of sanctions increases, offenders will commit fewer infractions. HOPE puts this principle into practice by drug testing probationers and responding immediately to any positive tests, often with a short stay in jail. By increasing the costs of drug use in this way, HOPE tips the cost-benefit balance away from crime and reduces offending.
The success of HOPE indicates that offenders may, in fact, respond to deterrent tactics when the threat of punishment is certain and closely follows the crime. So why did Bhati find that collecting offenders DNA does not deter? It may be that their DNA was collected too far in the past to affect their post-release offending. The solution is to make the threat of punishment clearer and more immediate. The intervention, then, is simple: Offenders need to be made aware of the effectiveness of DNA evidence in apprehending suspects and reminded that their DNA can be used to aid future criminal investigations. These messages should be delivered frequently and strategically, such as while offenders are transitioning out of prison and at their subsequent parole meetings. By making offenders more aware of the risks of participation in further criminal activity, DNA evidence may be able to become a powerful, low-cost tool to deter future crime as well as apprehend suspects.
Illustration by Tim Meko/The Urban Institute.
Filed under: Crime |Tags: Avi Bhati, Cass Sunstein, criminal investigation, DNA, DNA collection, DNA database, DNA evidence, Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, john roman, Nudge, reducing crime, Richard Thaler, solving crime 2 Comments »