This book is a culmination of 18 years of sporadic journeys into estimating the costs of crime and justice. My travels began rather serendipitously as I never studied crime in college or graduate school. I am an economist-trained to analyze the allocation of resources in society. My dissertation was concerned with the optimal enforcement policy to reduce oil spills-and I adapted the Gary Becker (1968) model of the economics of crime to analyze government penalties and enforcement policies designed to prevent oil spills from tankers and to conduct a benefit-cost analysis of the government's policy (Cohen, 1986 and 1987). In 1985, when the newly established United States Sentencing Commission was in the process of being formed, I received a phone call from Professor Michael Block at the University of Arizona. Professor Block was one of the few economists who specialized in analyzing crime issues. He had just been appointed by President Reagan to be a Commissioner of the new Sentencing Commission and was looking for a young economist who knew something about the economics of crime. I told him that I was not his man, since I knew nothing about crime. That did not seem to matter to him. I suspect he hired me because he could not find any other newly minted Ph.D. economist who was knowledgeable in this area. Thus my journey began.
The first few days on the job were fascinating. I was literally the first staff member to arrive at the Commission other than a few secretaries. I sat around the table with eight Commissioners-including several judges-one of whom, Stephen Breyer, would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. The Commissioners turned to me and asked if I could do some research and brief them on (a) how social scientists have ranked the severity of crime, and (b) what is known about the factors judges use to sentence offenders. While I worked on both issues over the next several months, the first question was most intriguing. I found a vast literature beginning with Sellin and Wolfgang's (1966) path-breaking public perception surveys used to rank crime severity. While these methods are valuable-and have withstood the test of time-the economist in me asked if there was a more objective way to rank crime severity-the actual harm caused by crime. Thus I began to look for any study that placed dollar values on crime-with the ultimate goal of being able to conduct benefit-cost analyses.