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As more data on crime and policing become available, economists are getting deeper insights into the causes and effects of criminal behaviour, and a greater understanding of how the criminal justice system works.

Newsletter from 2 November 2023

The study of crime within economics is still relatively new. While the seminal contribution goes back to economics Nobel laureate Gary Becker, when he published Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach in 1968, it is a field that has re-emerged as police services and criminal justice institutions around the world increasingly share data with researchers.

This, in turn, has attracted many interesting and young scholars to the field. According to data from Jennifer Doleac, a leading US crime economist, the number of crime-related publications over the last decade (comparing 2022 with 2012) has grown almost three-fold, and the number of publications in top five academic journals in economics has more than doubled.

While we are starting to lift the lid on many more topics in the field, we are also opening a Pandora’s box. In short, the more we know, the more we realise how much there is still to uncover. There are many reasons for this.

First, as crime is so closely related to wellbeing, it is a vast field that touches many (if not most) aspects of life. Still, as many causes of crime are complexly intertwined, it makes it difficult to disentangle causal links, which is of paramount relevance in current research. Crime is also an outcome of complex social processes, and subject to the influence of quite different institutional structures and their intricacies.

Second, there is the enormous variation in the structure and quality of police services. For example, there are significant differences between police in the UK and the United States. The former has a more limited number of police services, which are glued together by common training standards. While there is still considerable variation in size, capacity, and capabilities of the various forces in the UK, this is nothing compared with the 18,000 odd forces across the United States, all of which are very sub-scale in size.

Another major difference is that while the typical police officer in the UK does not carry firearms, they do in the United States (and their use is widely criticised).

Further, in the United States there is also the additional issue that – from the outset – the criminal justice system is not working properly. The clear example is that of racial discrimination, whereby black people have a much higher propensity of being imprisoned.

All of this means that we should be cautious in implementing insights derived from one context to others that are vastly different. At minimum, a careful discussion of how different institutional structures and efficiencies might affect the insights when transposed across the world is necessary.

This week on the Economics Observatory, we have drawn together insights from around the world. These articles, we believe, are examples of where the current research on the economics of crime is moving. Three stories discuss issues around crime and early life – and one looks at biases in the criminal justice system.

In a piece published on Monday, Anna Bindler (University of Cologne) and colleagues address the issue of unequal treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system. Taking a historical perspective, this article analyses the case of Irish immigrants that arrived in England following the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, showing that Irish defendants received more severe sentences than their English counterparts. This trend was worsened by their lack of representation in the criminal justice system.

An article by Martin Koppensteiner (University of Surrey) and Lívia Menezes (University of Birmingham) examines a more contemporary issue. They discuss how crime perpetrated against expectant mothers can negatively affect babies’ birthweight and thus children’s health early in life. While the average impact is small in magnitude (15 grams), this becomes dangerous for children with lower birthweight. This research also speaks to the corresponding issue of the intergenerational transmission of trauma, which is often associated with that of criminal activities.

Custody among young people is the focus of a piece by Sandra McNally (University of Surrey) Stephen Machin (London School of Economics) and Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela (University of Barcelona). They explore the characteristics of youth most likely to end up in custody in the UK and show that these young people – almost exclusively boys – are much more likely to have been eligible to receive free school meals and less likely to speak English as a first language.

Further, 75% of those boys ending up in youth custody at age 16 or 17 were designated under a ‘special needs’ category, indicating additional need, possibly due to learning or social, emotional or mental health difficulties. More generally, mental health and crime are two very intertwined topics, and the links between them are, in our opinion, still poorly understood.

School attendance and crime is the focus of an article by Matteo Sandi (Cattolica University of Milan) and colleagues. They discuss whether keeping young people in school for an extra year – a reform in Queensland, Australia – had an impact on their propensity to display violence in school at age 16-17. The research shows that the reform increased the count and risk of violent school discipline sanctions at ages 16 and 17 by 15% and 13% respectively, while it did not affect police records of violent offences at the same age.

These studies highlighted by the articles published on the Economics Observatory this week are clear examples of what we can currently achieve as we unravel high-quality data sources, new analytical techniques, and collaboration with the public sector.

While there is still much more to understand around the determinants and consequences of criminal behaviour – and the criminal justice system – the field of crime economics is currently moving forward at a speed that we have not seen before. We are hopeful this trend will continue in the years to come.

Authors: Magdalena Dominguez and Tom Kirchmaier (Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics)
Photo by Ajax9 for iStock
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