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March 6, 2016

In praise of (impossible?) request tasking Government Accountability Office with accounting for "the cost of crime in the United States"

Crime-2010I was quite pleased to discover this notable press release from the House Judiciary Committee reporting on a notable letter sent by two Representatives to the Comptroller General.  Here is the substantive heart of both the press release and the letter:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study the cost of crime in the United States to better inform members of the House Judiciary Committee as it continues its bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative.  In 2014, there were nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States, generating substantial costs for Americans, communities, and the country. In a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Goodlatte and King request that the GAO study this issue and breakdown the cost of crime for federal, state, and local governments.

Below is the text of the letter....  

Dear Comptroller General Dodaro:

In June of last year, the House Judiciary Committee launched a criminal justice reform initiative.  Over the ensuing months, the Committee has addressed a variety of criminal justice issues through legislation. In order to assist our efforts in this endeavor, we are writing to you regarding our concerns about the cost of crime in the United States.  According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were an estimated 1,165,383 violent crimes and an estimated 8,277,829 property crimes in 2014.  Undoubtedly, these and other crimes generate substantial costs to society at individual, community, and national levels. 

Accordingly, we seek the assistance of the Government Accountability Office in fully investigating the cost of crime in the United States.  Specifically, we are interested in:

  1. The cost of Federal and State crimes to victims of crime:
    1. Total cost
    2. Cost by state
  2. The cost of crime to the United States economy and to state economies
  3. The cost of crime to Federal, State, and local governments
  4. The cost of crime, per year:
    1. Per type of criminal offense
    2. Average cost per criminal  
    3. Average cost per victim
  5. The rate of recidivism of offenders who are released from terms of imprisonment, and the costs described under #1 through #3 for crimes committed by such offenders subsequent to their release  

We look forward to working with you so that GAO can expeditiously complete this important task. 

I am already very excited to see what the GAO comes up with as it takes up this request to "study the cost of crime in the United States." Indeed, upon seeing this press release, I started thinking it was quite notable and somewhat curious that there apparently has not been any prior requests for the GAO to engaging in what I agree is an "important task."

That said, I think this task has to start with important and challenging questions that are integral to defining what kinds of "Crimes" and what kinds of "costs" are to be included in this study and its efforts at accounting. Notably, this letter references the "nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States" as reported by the FBI, but this accounting leaves out what would seem to be some of the most wide-spread significant crimes in America according to various measures of nationwide illegal behaviors each year, namely drunk driving (with over 100 million estimated yearly incidents) and marijuana trafficking (over 50 million estimated incidents). Should the GAO leave out drunk driving incidents unless one includes a physical harm to persons or property? Should the GAO leave out marijuana offenses altogether in its accounting even though roughly half of all drug arrests nationwide are for these offenses and those arrests have various obvious economic costs to governments?

Ultimately, though, the challenge of defining what "crimes" to consider pales in comparison to defining what "costs" to consider in this kind of study. The majority of violent crimes recorded by the FBI are aggravated assaults, which are "an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury." And these kinds of assaults seem to come in all shapes and sizes in 2014 according to FBI data: Of those reported to law enforcement, "26.9 percent were committed with personal weapons, such as hands, fists, or feet. Firearms were used in 22.5 percent of aggravated assaults, and knives or cutting instruments were used in 18.8 percent. Other weapons were used in 31.9 percent of aggravated assaults." Can GAO reasonably guess that the "costs" to a victim of being severely beaten by fists are less (or perhaps more) than the costs of being shot? Do these costs turn significantly on the nature of the victim based on their age, health, gender or professional activities? If such an assault requires a person to say in bed for a week to recover, should we say the "costs" of missed acitivities are the same or are different for, say, a sales clerk or a student or an unemployed person?

Critically, as the image reprinted here highlights, doing these calculations is possible if you make a lot of assumptions.  Indeed, the Rand Corporation has run these numbers in the past, although many questions and concerns could obviously be raised about its accounting decisions.

March 6, 2016 at 04:14 PM | Permalink

Comments

Hi Doug--

You might be interested in this recent issue of Criminology and Public Policy, which talks a lot about the cost-of-crime literature. It's focused around an article by Dominguez and Raphael (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9133.12148/abstract) but there are several responses. I would particularly commend Michael Tonry's response. Best, DB

Posted by: W. David Ball | Mar 6, 2016 4:52:32 PM

A solution for violent crime , albeit a tad harsh , + probably contra many provisions of our Bill of Rights:

☺ Convert violent criminals to Soylent Green tablets and feed the hungry •

DJB - Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

Posted by: Docile Jim Brady „ the Nemo Me ♠ Impune Lacessit ♂ in Oregon ‼ | Mar 6, 2016 6:12:24 PM

Punishment should fit the crime so that the criminal and society see the cost. Petty theft: slice the forefinger. Theft over a hundred dollars value: cut off forefinger and thumb. Use of firearm: shoot the perp in the left arm and cut off the trigger finger. Rape: cut off the...

Posted by: BarkinDog | Mar 7, 2016 9:30:25 AM

Why isn't white collar crime included in the cost of "crime"?

Posted by: Paul | Mar 7, 2016 7:46:21 PM

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