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June 1, 2023

"Fighting Crime Requires More Police and Less Prosecution"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Bloomberg opinion piece by Justin Fox than is built around an interview with Jennifer Doleac (WaPo reprint here).  Here is the set up to the Q&A in the article:

The nationwide jump in shootings and homicides early in the pandemic and the rise in other crimes that followed in some places have made crime a hot topic again in the US.  It has been a prominent one for academic research for a while, with economists in particular flocking to the field as a testing ground for research strategies that aim to sift causes from data. To get a sense of how recent findings fit with the national discussion on crime, I talked to Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University who not only studies crime but hosts a podcast on new research, Probable Causation, and has organized the Criminal Justice Expert Panel, which sums up expert opinion on crime questions.  This summer, Doleac, who has also written a few columns for Bloomberg Opinion, will become executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a leading funder of crime research.  Following is a much-abridged transcript of our conversation and a list of research papers referred to in it.

I highly recommend the full piece, but here are snippets of likely interest to sentencing fans:

JD: [Research shows] first-time offenders are sort of at a fork in the road.  We can either hope it’s enough of a wake-up call that they’ve been arrested and had to come into court, and they’ll change course on their own, or we can pull them into the system.  I’ve become a big proponent of erring toward leniency in those sorts of situations.

There’s been other work to suggest similar things with nonviolent felony defendants. There’s a whole bunch of work on pretrial detention and the fact that locking people up pretrial has a really detrimental, causal effect on their future trajectories.  They’re more likely to plead guilty in that initial case but also more likely to re-offend in the future....

The main thing I try to point out to policymakers is we don’t have to fully understand why we are here to come up with ideas of what to do about it.  We can have ideas about what to do about violent crime that don’t require us solving this problem that we might never solve.

JF:  What are some top candidates?

JD: Putting more police on the streets reduces homicide, reduces violent crime.  There’s plenty of research on that. There are also plenty of discussions now about the potential social costs of over-policing, so it’s reasonable to have conversations about whether that is the route you want to go.  Also, it’s really hard to recruit police right now.

We know that increasing the probability of getting caught for crimes has a big deterrent effect in a way that potentially locking people up for 20 years on the back end does not.  No one is looking that far ahead.  Putting cameras everywhere, adding more people to DNA databases will increase the probability that you get caught if you offend.  We have lots of good evidence that would deter crime....

Leniency toward first-time offenders in the long run is probably a good investment.  Another thing is increasing access to mental health care.  There’s this amazing paper using data from South Carolina showing that when we kick kids off Medicaid at age 19, when it becomes much harder to stay on Medicaid, you just see all the kids get kicked off and then in the other graph you see everyone immediately locked up.  It’s these kids who were using Medicaid to get mental health treatment, they’re the ones that are now at very high risk of being locked up.

June 1, 2023 at 11:56 AM | Permalink


Given some of the BS prosecutions, some prosecutor's offices may need a budget cut . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Jun 1, 2023 2:09:43 PM

"Putting more police on the streets reduces homicide, reduces violent crime."

Color me highly skeptical of this claim. The evidence that incarceration of convicted offenders prevents crime is much stronger than the evidence that more police prevent crime.

The percentage of crimes that are prevented by police is quite low.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jun 1, 2023 7:56:34 PM

The presence of police, as distinguished from arrests made by police or convictions resulting therefrom, is known to increase the perception of the possibility of apprehension, which thus actually deters crime.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jun 1, 2023 11:30:12 PM

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