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Read Gluckman’s report on crime with scepticism

Read Gluckman’s report on crime with scepticism

The Gluckman report on the use of evidence in the criminal justice system has become the go to document for the new government and the media in recent months but it failed a basic sniff test. This report in March by the chief scientific advisor to the Prime Minister was too good to be true.

Professor Gluckman claimed that all the evidence showed that tough on crime policies do not work. No nuances here, not a two-handed economist to be seen. As a bonus, Gluckman found that some easy to adopt early interventions were available to significantly reduce incarceration rates with no risk to the public of increased crime. Finland was his model for interventions that reduced prison populations without increasing crime rates. What more would a prison reformer want?

Every social science literature has mixed results

That tough on crime policies do not work fails the sniff test that if a social sciences literature is said to have so clear-cut empirical results, then PhD students and academics are just not working hard enough to win promotion and research grants. Academic careers are built on raising doubts.

Academics must publish or perish. Journal editors publish new or conflicting findings. There is a relentless thirst for the new and the controversial. No academic wins a PhD or promotion or even survives an annual performance review by replicating the results of others in the social sciences.

Does the death penalty deter?

In 1983, Edward Leamer shook the foundations of econometrics so hard that young economists despaired for the possibility of a fruitful career in applied economics. In Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics, Leamer showed that competing researchers using slightly different but still plausible approaches to the causes and effects of crime and punishment had shown that the death penalty either greatly reduced the murder rate or increased it and anything in between.

The death penalty literature has not progressed far beyond that ambiguity of the 1980s. But my point here is there are still plenty of warring econometricians making reputations and careers by casting doubt on the earlier findings be it that the death penalty works or does not work. We are talking honest disagreements about research design. We have not even got to data mining and publication bias: too many researchers publish only those results that suit their conclusions.

If a policy works, why wasn’t John Key already all over it?

The 2nd sniff test that Gluckman fails is John Key, Tony Blair and their ilk are always on the lookout for a policy that reduces crime. Blair was elected on being tough on crime, tough on the causes.

If the early intervention and rehabilitation programs championed in the Gluckman report worked, John Key and Tony Blair would have implemented them years ago. John Key, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were notorious triangulators interested in whatever works to get them re-elected. There is little under the policy sun that is new or has not been tried and tried again.

We are not America

The studies cited by Gluckman on childhood interventions to reduce criminal offending were from America. Professor Gluckman, for example, noted that 65% of the payoff from the Perry preschool scheme established in the 1960s was from reduced criminal offending.

Much of the payoff from the Perry preschool program and similar US interventions were from fewer murders in a country with a far higher murder rate than ours. Many of the children in the pioneering early childhood interventions grew up in the crack cocaine epidemic which doubled murder rates.

There is an intersection in the 75th precinct of the New York Police Department known as the “4 corners of death”. The 75th precinct did not have a murder in the first 4 months of this year; there were 11 last year. Back in the early 1990s, when the crack cocaine epidemic peaked, there were over 100 murders a year in the 75th police precinct. Countries differ in important respects.

Do you want to bring an early intervention to New Zealand from the inner cities of the US and expect fewer murders when we have so few street crime murders and stranger murders to start with? An astounding 26 percent of black males in the US report seeing someone shot before turning age 12; and a total of 43% by their 18th birthday. This is two to three times the average for American boys. On average, black males report hearing one gunshot per week in their neighbourhoods, more than twice the average for white males. Import American social findings with care.

Europe has overtaken the US in crime rates

Gluckman’s strong finding that tough on crime policies, longer and longer prison sentences, do not reduce crime is easy to tear down if you look on each side of the Atlantic, and not just in Finland.

It is well-known that murder rates and crime in general in the USA halved since the early 1990s. What is less well known is violent and property crime have increased so much so in Europe despite their generous welfare states that crime rates apart from homicide are worse in Europe than the USA. London recently overtook New York City in murder rates despite Americans having plenty of guns and drug gangs armed to the teeth. London had a knife crime explosion.

Buonanno, Drago, Galbiati and Zanella (2011) found that in 1970, violent crime in Europe was 62% of the corresponding rate in the US. By 2008, violent crime aside from homicides was more than twice the US figure. The European property crime rate in 2007 was 20% above the US rate, while in 1970 it was one-third of the US. Europe is no longer a model of low crime.

Crime waves follow prison population reductions

Fortunately for Professor Gluckman, better evidence than Finland is available on the impact of reduced incarceration rates on crime. Nine Italian mass pardons allow us to test precisely what happens when we reduce prison populations.

The most recent Italian mass pardon was in 2006; a surprise response to prison overcrowding that released 1/3rd of inmates on condition they will serve the remainder of their pardoned sentence if they reoffended. Some of the released inmates faced as little as one month extra to serve if caught again, others up to 3 years if they reoffended. Did the released Italian inmates with the longer commuted sentences hanging over them pending good behaviour reoffend less?

Buonanno and Raphael (2013) found sizable increases in crime after the 2006 Italian mass pardon. Each prison-year served prevented between 14 and 46 crimes reported to the police, mostly theft and to a lesser degree, robbery. The mass pardon may have led to a slight increase in violent crime.

There were eight earlier Italian collective pardons between 1962 and 1990 releasing up to 35% of the prison population. Barbarino and Mastrobuoni (2014) found that the post-pardon crime waves suggested a reduction of total crime with respect to more imprisonment of 17 to 30 percent. (Same thing after school teachers’ strikes. There are juvenile crime waves when schools out all day).

A 2016 criminal justice review by the Obama White House found a smaller number than for Europe; a 10% increase in incarceration rates reduces crime by 2% or less. The Obama White House said the crime reduction from longer prison terms was lower because the USA sends criminals away for so long already that diminishing returns set in. More European prisoners finish their sentences while they are still young and wild rather than more mellowed-out middle-aged or older prisoners as is the case in the USA because of their savagely long prison terms.

The French and Korean presidents grant mass pardons for speeding and parking offences in the six months to one year before their election. Naturally, in the months prior to this anticipated pardon, it is more dangerous to drive in Korea and France. The 1995 vote won by president Jacques Chirac is blamed for an extra 300 road deaths. An acquaintance who worked in Paris saved up his parking tickets in anticipation of the pardon. When 35% of the Oregon State Highway Patrol were laid-off, road deaths and injuries rose by 10-20%. Incentives work on lawbreaking, great and small.

The best argument against 3-strikes is deterrence works

Prison reformers are at one with the tough on crime crowd when it comes to the effects of 3-strikes and you are out. Tough on crime advocates emphasise the incentive not to offend in the first place. Prison reformers stress the other side of the same coin; if a crime is committed, the offender has nothing to lose on their 3rd strike from greater violence and killing witnesses and then nothing to lose once they are in prison because they cannot be sentenced to further time.

What was found in the USA was offenders serve the same 25-to-life anyway so third strikers were more violent. But if offenders had something to lose, if their punishment was more tailored to their latest crime, they chose to be less violent.

Criminals think CSI is real

DNA profiling scares many criminals straight. The reduction in reoffending is far greater than any reasonable impact DNA science could be said to have had on police work. DNA science certainly helps with current and old cases but rarely does a prosecution rely solely on a DNA identification. Prosecutors have even introduced expert witnesses to remind juries to not expect scientific evidence of the calibre they see on CSI and the poetic license on TV about forensic science.

DNA profiling was rolled out slowly over the 50 American states for the convicted and then in 30 American states for arrestees. States initially swabbed serious violent offenders, then later added robbers, burglars, and more minor offenders. This phased roll-out by state and by the seriousness of offences left plenty of variation in the data to tease out the effects of DNA profiling.

The impact on reoffending rates by prisoners released before and after a state introduced DNA swabs was startling. Doleac (2017) found that DNA profiling reduced the probability of future convictions by 17% for serious violent offenders and by 6% for serious property offenders. Her later study of Danish DNA profiling showed similar large drops in reoffending. In another study, Doleac found that an extension to daylight saving reduced robberies by 7%. Criminals prefer the shadows.

Criminals mind getting arrested

Economists, sociologists and criminologists unite on the notion that criminals do not like to have their collars felt; offending drops when the probability of arrest is higher. Criminals have a lot of trouble weighing up the deterrent effect of longer terms in prison because of illiteracy, addiction, mental illness and low IQs. Deterrence works because criminals hate getting caught by police. Their sentence if convicted is hazier in the criminal mind’s calculations and impulse control.

The review by the Obama White House concluded that a strong empirical result is a 10% increase in police hiring reduces crime by at least 3% and sometimes much more. Police tactics such as hotspot policing work well but a broken windows policy of cracking down on petty offences is more dubious.

But there is still growing evidence in studies by Steve Machin that robberies and burglaries bend to factors ranging from recent harsher sentencing to rises and falls in the price of petrol, scrap metal and jewellery. Crime fell when long sentences were handed down in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots. Not only did robbery and violent disorder drop in the six-months after the 2011 riots, other crimes increased because sentences had not stiffened for not riot-type crimes.

Criminals are also put off their calling by the spread of security devices. Car thefts about halved when the Lockjack car immobilisation device spread. Dutch burglary rates dropped by one-quarter when burglar-proof doors and windows were made mandatory for new houses. Most of the fall in crime was for houses and cars with no extra security. Criminals just did not bother in the first place.

Reducing reoffending in the age of three-second soundbites

Soundbites in the 21st century leave no room for nuance. No talk of on balance and on the other hand like the two-handed economist. These days, snappy messages that all the evidence supports you and no evidence supports your opponent is all the journalists give you time to say.

The prison muster is always too small because there are unsolved murders, rapes and robberies. It is only too high in the limited sense there will be a few prisoners who were wrongly convicted and yet to be cleared on appeal. In addition, 20% of prisoners on remand are not convicted at trial. Remanded prisoners who are convicted have the time served taken off their sentence so stricter bail laws just bring forward the same time behind bars, so they do not increase the prison muster.

Explaining crime rates in your own country is challenging enough. Cross-country differences are a puzzle. Crime has fallen so quickly in the US that Europe is now more crime ridden. Crime is low in Scandinavian with their nicely-appointed prisons and even lower both in Japan which has petrifying prisons and in Singapore which uses the Rotan to whip you back literally to the straight and narrow. Singapore had over 1,200 canings with the Rotan in 2016, down from 6,000 per year 10 years prior.

Work both ends of making crime not pay

Rising reoffending rates are bad because there are more new victims of crime. Too many lose their moral compass to go on about the unfortunate criminal going back to prison and forget their victims.

Longer prison sentences reduce crime. Teaching prisoners to read and cope with their addictions reduces reoffending rates. These policies work at opposite ends of the same decision calculus; they make crime less rewarding because longer prison sentences deter, and literacy and addiction programmes make a life of crime less tempting because other more legitimate options have opened.

Evidence-based policy for thee but not for me

Genuine criminal justice reformers must be willing to swallow what are for many of them are a few ideological dead-rats. Both 90-day trials for recruits and charter schools give another chance to teenagers and adults who have fallen off the rails. Evidence-based policy is for everyone. You cannot expect others to give up cherished beliefs if your own are equally immune to inconvenient evidence.

Jim Rose is an economic consultant in Wellington


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