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Interview with Philip J. Cook, Ph.D. - Economical Crime Control: Perspectives from Both Sides of the Ledger

This interview followed the presentation "Economical Crime Control: Perspectives from Both Sides of the Ledger" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series by Philip J. Cook, PhD, ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Economics and Sociology, Duke University.

The Normative Economistic Framework of Crime Control

Philip J. Cook That was Gary Becker's contribution in 1968 was to say that the public interest in crime control has to take account of the fact that crime control itself is a costly activity. And so that the total cost that we have to consider is the sum of the direct costs of crime and the costs of crime control. So that you certainly can imagine that you could have harsh punishments for long prison terms for shoplifting where, sure enough, there was less shoplifting as a result, but the value of the crimes prevented was far less than the cost of locking those people up for a long time. And that's the trade off, I think, that is very important in thinking about setting the criminal justice policy. I think where it has come up most vividly is about the concern about mass incarceration and about the fact that we have over two million people in prison right now. It's one percent of the adult public, which means we're locking up a higher percentage of our population than any other country on Earth by a wide margin. And not only that, locking up a higher percentage than we ever did in the 20th century up until 1985 or 1990. So we are in extraordinary times when it comes to that particular crime control method. For many of us, it seems like it has just gone too far, and in that spirit, there's been a renewed interest in saying, "What are the alternatives to prison? And are there alternatives that will control crime effectively but with less human cost and less cost to the state governments?"

[End of video clip]

Crime Control Today: The Good Guy/Bad Guy Framework

Cook I think that this is such a convenient shorthand in talking about what's going on with crime, and it kind of fits with our intuition that there's bad actors out there and then there's the Mother Teresas, and that it's easy to kind of say, "Who am I in that spectrum and who are the people I hang out with?" But it really is not an accurate description of what's going on, and most of us, in fact, do break the law from time to time if we're tempted by — for example, to speed because we're late for an appointment or whatever the story is. And the people who routinely are out there committing robbery and other serious crimes don't commit crimes all the time. They're lots of times law-abiding; they actually pay for the pack of gum that they buy. So we have to have a more nuanced view of what's going on in order to make progress on this issue. And it's a difficult sell to the public. I mean, the notion that there's a bunch of bad guys, that's what causes the crime that we know of, and the answer is lock them up or deport them is so appealing because it seems obviously correct and it's going to succeed in what we're trying to do here. So that's the challenge, is that what mass incarceration has going for it is that people understand it. They understand that as a method of crime control, it makes sense to them. And they are more skeptical perhaps of other methods of crime control, and so there's a role for science and for persuasion.

An Economist's Framework for Crime Control

So I think that a more comprehensive approach is what's needed and that we need to think of crime as a very complicated set of interactions. That the crime control is not going to be one single magic bullet; it's going to be a portfolio. We have to figure out what belongs in the portfolio in order to make sure that we're using the right amount of all of the different levers that are available to us. Some of those crime control levers are to try to do a better job investing in children and reducing criminal propensity on the part of the public. And of course, prison is part of the portfolio — that's essential in some cases and for limited periods. But so is thinking about what are the opportunities that are available to youths, and what can we do to make the crime opportunities less attractive and legitimate opportunities more attractive? To reduce opportunity, I think one thing we need to do is have a more effective use of criminal justice resources. I think we know that the police can be used very effectively, and that they, far more than prison, look like a good investment in terms of reducing crime. Anything that creates a sense that crime doesn't pay and that it's going to result in arrest and punishment. But it doesn't have to be severe punishment. I think that's what we are wasting our money on is very long prison sentences. That doesn't increase the deterrent. I think it's important to look at drugs and alcohol and other areas that are leading youths to make foolish decisions and to self-destruct; so that my own work has looked at, for example, just reducing availability and raising the price of alcohol. That has a direct effect on crime and is important. And then to take better advantage of the fact that the private sector is the front lines when it comes to limiting criminal opportunity. So, private individuals and businesses are all in the business of avoiding victimization and avoiding crime and preventing it. But we don't always do enough or enough of the right thing in that area. With a little nudging on the part of policy we could make it much more effective.

[End of video clip]

The Role of Private Action in Crime Reduction

Cook What I discovered when I started researching this was the technological change that's been going on to protect cars against theft. And so first we had, for example, LoJack, which is this tracking device that is hidden on cars if the owner chooses to buy it for $700. And that LoJack device will track where the car is if it's stolen. The police can switch it on from remotely and then find out what chop shop the car ended up in or what boat it ended up on. And as a result, the police in cities that have this LoJack capability have been able to shut down the chop shops and really stop car theft rings. The problem is why would I spend $700 to buy one of these things? It doesn't change my insurance rates in most districts, and there's no particular payoff. I know if my car is stolen, there probably will be a write-off, but I'll get paid by my insurance company. So the incentives are out of line with the great social payoff that's associated with it. All right, so then we have the immobilizer, the most recent device that has been added to vehicles. About 85 percent of all cars now have an immobilizer when they are manufactured, which makes them, essentially, theft-proof. So it's not possible to start a car that has an immobilizer unless you have the key. And of course the keys these days are these fancy gizmos that have electronic chips in them and all kinds of things. And so unless you have the right electronic chip, you can't get past the immobilizer. And as a result, new cars are not going to get stolen unless it's by people who first have gotten their hands on the key, and this has had a huge effect on auto theft rates. So that's private action of a different kind where it's the manufacturers have come up with this and made a really big difference. It's eliminated the joyriding and theft by teenagers hotwiring; all of the stuff that's part of the lore of growing up as a teenage boy has pretty much been eliminated during that. So those are sort of specific examples that I think get reproduced in other areas as the technology of alarms and signals and all kinds of things have become more and more sophisticated.

[End of video clip]

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  • Playlist of the complete three-part interview with Philip Cook
  • Segment 1: The Normative Economistic Framework of Crime Control
  • Segment 2: Crime Control Today: The Good Guy/Bad Guy Framework
  • Segment 3: The Role of Private Action in Crime Reduction

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NIJ Research for the Real World Seminar
December 2011
Phillip J. Cook, ITT/Sanford Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Economics and Sociology, Duke University

The surge in incarceration since 1980 has been fueled in part by the mistaken belief that the population can be divided neatly into "good guys" and "bad guys." In fact, crime rates are not determined by the number of at-large criminals, any more than farm production is determined by the number of farmers. Crime is a choice, a choice that is influenced by available opportunities as much as by character. This perspective, drawn from economic theory, supports a multi-faceted approach to crime control. Dr. Cook's presentation includes examples of effective programs and policies from both sides of the ledger — both people-changing, and opportunity-changing.

We were also able to capture an interview Dr. Cook in which he discusses in three short segments:

  • The Normative Economistic Framework of Crime Control
  • Crime Control Today: The Good Guy/Bad Guy Framework
  • The Role of Private Action in Crime Reduction

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Date created: December 20, 2011