Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Economist's Guide to Crime Busting: The Old Divide between Hard and Soft Strategies Is Breaking Down under a Wave of New Thinking about How to Control Crime

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Economist's Guide to Crime Busting: The Old Divide between Hard and Soft Strategies Is Breaking Down under a Wave of New Thinking about How to Control Crime

Article excerpt

WHAT IS THE MORE COST-EFFECTIVE WAY TO control crime? Is it to focus on making crime unattractive by threatening offenders with long prison terms? Or to make the law-abiding life more attractive by providing better education and job opportunities? It's an old debate. The federal crime commissions of the 1960s emphasized crime's links with poverty and racism, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs were central to his war on crime. But ultimately the "hawks" won the debate about how to wage that war, as they did later in helping to launch President Richard M. Nixon's war on drugs. The result has been plain to see, with the rate of imprisonment surging to unprecedented heights.

Now the debate has been reopened. It is not so much that the public views mass incarceration, with its disproportionately high levels of imprisonment for blacks and Hispanics, as immoral or racist. Rather, the dreary fact is that, in the face of gaping budget deficits, the states can no longer afford to support huge prison populations. It seems like a good time for the economists to weigh in, in part because their perspective provides a way to get past the stale debates over whether to adopt "tough" or "soft" solutions.

The economic theory of crime starts with the premise that crime is a choice. It is not the result of character or culture, or not only of those things, but is at bottom a product of decisions individuals make in response to their available options. Most of us choose to abstain from crime in part because we have a lot to lose if we get caught. Even so, we may slip up occasionally--say, at tax time or when driving--but generally the temptations of crime are not strong enough to override our restraint. The calculus for an unemployed dropout with readily available criminal options and few licit prospects is likely to be quite different.

This economic perspective generates a nicely symmetrical approach to crime control. Crime policy should focus both on making criminal opportunities less tempting and on making the law-abiding life more rewarding. We can debate how best to accomplish each of those aims (and long prison terms are by no means the only answer for reducing temptation), but it's important to realize that they are closely linked: The threat of arrest and imprisonment is sharper for those who have something to lose, so giving at-risk people a bigger stake in the law-abiding life is a deterrent to crime.


Of course, this logic doesn't always work out. One reason so many people were shocked by the criminal charges against NFL stars Michael Vick (for staging dogfights) and Plaxico Burress (for carrying a gun illegally) is that both had so much to lose. But these cases help prove the rule precisely because they are so rare. When high-income people commit serious crimes, it is much more often in response to opportunities for great financial gain: Investment bilker Bernard Madoff comes to mind, along with Enron president Jeffrey Skilling and publishing magnate Conrad Black. Thankfully, most of us are spared the temptation to rake in millions from fraudulent dealings by the simple fact that we wouldn't even know how to begin.

The "crime as choice" perspective expands the discussion of crime control from the question of how many new prisons we need to a wider-ranging consideration of how to make illicit choices less attractive. Here we will focus on three proposals: raising the minimum age at which youths can leave school, promoting business improvement districts and other forms of self-protection, and increasing taxes on alcohol. To understand why these measures' moment has arrived, it's first necessary to take a brief excursion into the recent history of American crime control efforts.

The most notable feature of that history is that the rate of incarceration has increased by a factor of seven in the last generation. America now locks up one percent of its adult population--the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. …

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