Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

Dragnet’s Joe Friday may have never uttered those words, but he would be impressed nonetheless by the facts on crime. There was a fascinating piece by Erik Eckholm in yesterday’s New York Times on the Drop-in-crimedramatic reductions in crime over the past several decades. Overall, crime peaked in 1991 and has fallen steadily since then.


All of this leads to the big question: why? Is it a change in tactics (e.g., aggressive policing, the “broken window” theory)? Is it a product of an increase in the costs of criminality (e.g., mandatory sentencing and the decision to keep 1.5 million people in prison)? Is it a product of good economic times? Perhaps it simply reflects demographics (e.g., the aging of the population, the decline in teenage pregnancy)? In the end, law professor Franklin E. Zimring (UC-Berkeley) is quoted as describing the search for an explanation as “criminological astrology.”


Max Ehrenfreund (Washington Post Wonkblog) has designated the above “chart of the day” as “something of a Rorschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see in it.” That may be something of an overstatement. Certainly, the advocates of the war on drugs, police militarization, aggressive policing and harsh sentencing laws will view it as evidence that their strategies have worked. They will have the challenge of explaining why similar trends are evident elsewhere, including Canada, that have not embraced the US model. And I am not at all certain of how the Left would make sense of the fact that crime has fallen as inequality has increased.

Will the decline in crime have an impact on public policy? Will it lead to a rethinking of police militarization and mass incarceration? I hold little hope given that public opinion seems immune to the facts.



Even if crime has fallen dramatically, according to Gallup the majority of Americans in most years on record believe that crime is getting worse. As Gallup observes: “federal crime statistics have not been highly relevant to the public’s crime perceptions in recent years.” A public concerned with crime and (willfully) ignorant of the long-term trends will continue to demand an aggressive police presence. And that demand will be met.

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Marc blogged the other day about the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement of repealing federal marijuana prohibition, just months after having rejected that step. Now, this isn’t quite the same as endorsing marijuana legalization – just returning it to the states – but it is a significant step nonetheless. Still, they are well behind the rest of the country. An absolute majority of Americans favor legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana more or less like alcohol. Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor.

Fivethirtyeight recently showed how out-of-step the New York Times is by comparing their position to that of representative Americans with a similar demographic profile. Money quote:

[P]eople with this demographic profile are somewhere around 25 or 30 percentage points more supportive of marijuana legalization than the average American. That implies that back in 2000, when only about 30 percent of Americans supported legalization, perhaps 55 or 60 percent of these people did. The margin of error on this estimate is fairly high — about 10 percent — but not enough to call into question that most people like those on the Times’ editorial board have privately supported legalization for a long time. The question is why it took them so long to take such a stance publicly.

The political class everywhere, regardless of left-right ideology, has been vastly more opposed to marijuana legalization than equivalent Americans. Here in New Hampshire, Democratic governor Maggie Hassan has not only opposed and promised to veto recreational marijuana legalization, she has also opposed and threatened to veto marijuana decriminalization and even allowing terminally ill patients to grow their own medical marijuana plants. Her spineless copartisans in the state senate have gone meekly along. And is anyone really surprised that government bootlicker David Brooks opposes legalization? It’s no accident that the only two states to legalize recreational marijuana so far have been states with the popular ballot initiative. It’s also no accident that medical marijuana started in states with the popular ballot initiative. The people have had to go around the controllers and neurotics in office.

Now the Brookings Institution has come out with a study of marijuana legalization in Colorado. Their quick synopsis? (more…)

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The New York Times had a wonderful piece earlier this week on the disposal of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 Program). Since 2006, the Department of Defense has sold or given away (at minimum):

  • 432 MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles)
  • 435 other armored vehicles
  • 44,900 night vision pieces
  • 533 aircraft
  • 93,763 machine guns (these are real machine guns, BTW, not “assault weapons”)

The story has draws on the example of Neenah, Wisconsin, described as “a quiet city of about 25,000 people” that “has not had a homicide in more than five years.” (I have been to Neenah, and I can testify that the word “quiet” should be capitalized). The Neenah PD has recently acquired its own MRAP. Designed for Afghanistan, these wonderful trucks proved a bit too top heavy for the terrain. So the vehicles are now available for local law enforcement for a song (or free). This is not a bad deal. The original price tag varies, but the top end model cost about $750,000 to produce.

MRAP 6x6

A quick web search reveals a few other locations that have secured their own MRAPs, including Nixa, Missouri, Fort Myers, Florida, Klamath County, Oregon, Christian County, Missouri, Boise, Caldwell, Preston, Nampa and Post Falls (all in Idaho). Even Ohio State University Police Department has one.

Why would Neenah need an MRAP? Simple: the possibility of violence. As the Neenah Police Chief explains: “We’re not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say ‘Good enough.’ ” After all, maybe there have been five years without a homicide, but what about next year…? Reason has similar piece on the sheriff of Pulaski County Indiana who has secured his own MRAP for a simple reason: “it’s a lot more intimidating than a Dodge.”

Speaking of Indiana, the New York Times story has a rather striking paragraph that provides another reason to get that MRAP:

“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs.

I will let that one sink in for a moment. The police need MRAPs to protect themselves from veterans.

For a host of reasons, the US murder rate is at a 40-year low. Yet, our law enforcement has never been more militarized thanks to our endless wars abroad and our policy to distribute our surplus tools of war at fire sale prices. With all the surplus yet to be disposed of, this is one trend that is likely to continue for some time.

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A Living Death

The Economist has a painful piece about mandatory life sentences in the United States, much of which is drawn from a new report by the ACLU entitled “A Living Death.” A few interesting points:

  • At least 3,278 people are serving life sentences without parole for non-violent crimes.
  • “Around 79% of them were convicted of drug crimes. These include: having an unweighably small amount of cocaine in a shirt pocket, selling $10-worth of crack to a police informant and mailing small amounts of LSD to fellow Grateful Dead fans. Property crimes that earned offenders a permanent home in prison include shoplifting three belts, breaking into an empty liquor store and possessing stolen wrenches.
  • One-fifth of those non-violent offenders with mandatory life sentences without parole were given this penalty for a first offense.

The brief story is full of interesting and disturbing facts about the racial biases in sentencing and the overall costs. There is much, much, more on the ACLU website for the report. All of this should prove more than a bit disturbing for those who care about civil liberties, the failed war on drugs, and the growth of the surveillance state.

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Update: added missing caption to figure

Next year, the New Hampshire House will take up a bill to abolish the death penalty. Several libertarian legislators have signed on as co-sponsors, and observers think the bill has a good chance.

What should libertarians think about the death penalty? In general, hardcore civil libertarians have opposed it, but there does not seem to be anything in the moral principles libertarians have adopted that straightforwardly generate an a priori skepticism of capital punishment. The case for or against capital punishment depends on empirical research in a way that the case, say, for or against certain gun laws does not. (Banning handguns would be wrong even if it reduced the violent crime rate, I would argue.)

Some libertarians say that the state can never be trusted with the death penalty. But this too is an empirical claim. What is the rate of killing of innocents when the government has a death penalty of a certain kind? We also need to think about what rate would be unacceptable. (Every criminal justice system will punish some innocents, because no criminal justice system is perfect.) That latter threshold presumably depends on what the deterrent effect of capital punishment is. If capital punishment deters a significant number of murders, presumably an extremely rare execution of an innocent — while horrible and thoroughly regrettable — does not make the system unacceptable.

So does capital punishment deter murders? Apparently not. The literature on capital punishment in the U.S. has shown mixed results, with some models showing a positive deterrent effect (lives saved) and others showing a negative “deterrent” effect (more murders). The recent research by Durlauf, Fu, and Navarro (here and here) helps us adjudicate among these results.

The most plausible set of models consists of those that assume that a higher probability of execution affects murder rate via a logistic function (which reduces the influence outliers). Here’s how they summarize their results in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology for various sets of models (marginal effects reported for the mean 1996 death penalty state):

capital punishment deterrent effects
Fig 2: Positive deterrent effect of executions (net lives saved)

The “linear, state coefficients” models are the least plausible: these models assume the deterrent effect of the death penalty (that is, the marginal effect of executions on the decision to commit homicide) varies by state. As they point out, that is a bit like assuming that the treatment effect of a drug is different in Texas than in other states. In general, linear models are less plausible than logistic models, which assume a functional form more appropriate to the data.

All of the logistic models show a net lives lost effect from capital punishment. Varying the other model details seem not to make a big difference to the results. However, the authors also calculate the posterior probability of the model’s being true given its assumptions and the data, and model 16 above comes out best. This model yields one of the highest “negative deterrent” effects of capital punishment.

In summary, the evidence leads me to believe that capital punishment does not, on net, save lives. It may even cost lives through a kind of “brutalization” process. This information is highly relevant to the normative policy implications.

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