Doing Time Chills Crime

Article excerpt

The FBI recently released data showing that serious crimes decreased in 1996, continuing a pattern that began in 1992. This might satisfy the statisticians who detect an improving trend, but it won't calm the fears of most Americans. Indeed, polls show that the average citizen worries a lot about crime.

Sensing the public's angst, politicians of all stripes have proposed solutions. Their crime-fighting proposals have come in two forms. One is served up by incentivists and the other by structuralists. The incentivists claim that more severe punishments reduce crime rates.

The structuralists object to these solutions. They argue that getting tough on crime doesn't work. For the structuralists, the solution to crime lies in criminal rehabilitation and also in the amelioration of the root cause of crime: the breakdown in moral standards and civility in America.

Who's right? The evidence, which is summarized by James

Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein in Crime and Human Nature, overwhelmingly favors the incentivists. Contrary to assertions made by the structuralists, getting tough on crime works and it works rapidly, according to data presented in the book.

The data also suggest that structuralists err in claiming that criminal rehabilitation works. In actuality, it has a poor track record. The one strong leg structuralists have to stand on is based on their desire to reset the nation's moral compass. This is important. But even if we wear the rosiest of glasses, we cannot be too sanguine about the possibility of changing America's moral standards, at least in the short run.

To reduce crime now, we must change the incentives faced by potential criminals.

As Gary Becker, the University of Chicago's Nobel-laureate economist, has shown, crimes are not irrational acts. Instead, they are voluntarily committed by people who compare the expected benefits of crime with the expected costs. As Meyer Lansky, the infamous Mafia boss, claimed, "I am a businessman." He calculated the benefits and costs of his actions like everyone else.

To the extent that expected benefits outweigh expected costs, more crime will be committed. This commonsense view is consistent with public opinion, the views of criminals themselves, and a large body of statistical research.


So, one way to reduce crime is to lower its expected payoff, where the payoff is the difference between benefits and costs of criminal activity. Public policy can do nothing about the expected benefits of a crime, but it can do a lot about the expected costs.

Those costs can be measured by determining the expected punishment associated with various criminal acts. That expected punishment is calculated by first multiplying four probabilities: that of being arrested for a crime after it is committed, that of being prosecuted if arrested, that of being convicted if prosecuted, and that of receiving punishment if convicted. The product of that arithmetic is the probability of being punished.

To complete the calculation of expected punishment, we must next multiply the probability of being punished times the penalty for an offense, which is measured by the length of prison sentences and/or the size of restitution payments.

Consider burglary, for example. Of the burglaries committed, less than 7 percent result in an arrest. Of those arrested, 90 percent are prosecuted. Of those prosecuted, 53 percent are convicted. Of those convicted, 42 percent are sent to prison. If we multiply those probabilities together, we find that a burglar has only a 1.4 percent probability of doing prison time.

Because the average prison time for burglars is 15 months, the technical expected punishment is an average of only 6 days in prison (1.4 percent times 15 months). Consequently, burglary pays if the prospective thief values the stolen goods more than 6 days of freedom. …