You know why the crime rate is down? Drugs.

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Well, psychiatric drugs, that is:

In this paper we consider possible links between the advent and diffusion of a number of new psychiatric pharmaceutical therapies and crime rates. We describe recent trends in crime and review the evidence showing mental illness as a clear risk factor both for criminal behavior and victimization. We then briefly summarize the development of a number of new pharmaceutical therapies for the treatment of mental illness which diffused during the “great American crime decline.” We examine limited international data, as well as more detailed American data to assess the relationship between crime rates and rates of prescriptions of the main categories of psychotropic drugs, while controlling for other factors which may explain trends in crime rates. We find that increases in prescriptions for psychiatric drugs are associated with decreases in violent crime, with the largest impacts associated with new generation antidepressants and stimulants used to treat ADHD.

Source: “A Cure for Crime? Psycho-Pharmaceuticals and Crime Trends” from NBER Working Paper No. 15354

Yeah, I know, you read Freakonomics and crime dropped because of abortion, right? Turns out that may not be the case:

Ten years have passed since John Donohue and Steven Levitt initially proposed that legalized abortion played a major role in the dramatic decline in crime during the 1990s. Criminologists largely dismiss the association because simple plots of age-specific crime rates are inconsistent with a large cohort affect following the legalization of abortion. Economists, on the other hand, have corrected mistakes in the original analyses, added new data, offered alternative tests and tried to replicate the association in other countries. Donohue and Levitt have responded to each challenge with more data and additional regressions. Making sense of the dueling econometrics has proven difficult for even the most seasoned empiricists. In this paper I review the evidence. I argue that the most straightforward test given available data involves age-specific arrest and homicide rates regressed on lagged abortion rates in the 1970s or indicators of abortion legalization in 1970 and 1973. Such models provide little support for the Donohue and Levitt hypothesis in either the US or the United Kingdom.

Source: “A Simple Test of Abortion and Crime,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 91(1), pages 112-123, 08.

Does sending people to prison even work? We’re not sure. Some say yes, some say no.

You know what doesn’t work? Mandatory sentences:

Policy and knowledge concerning mandatory minimum sentences have long marched in different directions in the United States. There is no credible evidence that the enactment or implementation of such sentences has significant deterrent effects, but there is massive evidence, which has accumulated for two centuries, that mandatory minimums foster circumvention by judges, juries, and prosecutors; reduce accountability and transparency; produce injustices in many cases; and result in wide unwarranted disparities in the handling of similar cases. No country besides the United States has adopted many mandatory penalty laws, and none has adopted laws as severe as those in the United States. If policy makers took account of research evidence (and informed practitioners’ views), existing laws would be repealed and no new ones would be enacted.

Source: “The Mostly Unintended Effects of Mandatory Penalties: Two Centuries of Consistent Findings” from the journal “Crime and Justice”

And it seems solitary confinement may be equivalent to torture, as explained here and here.

And If you think that you’re going to need to commit a few crimes to achieve the “American Dream” then might I suggest you not do them anywhere where the residents believe in the “American Dream”:

We observe that countries where belief in the “American dream” (i.e., effort pays) prevails also set harsher punishment for criminals. We know from previous work that beliefs are also correlated with several features of the economic system (taxation, social insurance, etc). Our objective is to study the joint determination of these three features (beliefs, punitiveness and economic system) in a way that replicates the observed empirical patterns. We present a model where beliefs determine the types of contracts that firms offer and whether workers exert effort. Some workers become criminals, depending on their luck in the labor market, the expected punishment, and an individual shock that we call “meanness”. It is this meanness level that a penal system based on “retribution” tries to detect when deciding the severity of the punishment. We find that when initial beliefs differ, two equilibria can emerge out of identical fundamentals. In the “American” (as opposed to the “French”) equilibrium, belief in the “American dream” is commonplace, workers exert effort, there are high powered contracts (and income is unequally distributed) and punishments are harsh. Economists who believe that deterrence (rather than retribution) shapes punishment can interpret the meanness parameter as pessimism about future economic opportunities and verify that two similar equilibria emerge.

Source: “Crime and punishment in the “American Dream”,” Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(7), pages 1564-1584, July.

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