Urban Wire How states can reduce crime, for free
John Roman
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In Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discuss how the government can help citizens make better decisions by acting as “choice architects” who have “the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Throughout the social sciences, academics are thinking about how this simple idea can be used to frame choices for the people who receive public services. Policymakers are reframing how they see the consumers of their services; instead of being viewed as passive recipients of government programs, these individuals – whether they are prisoners, drug addicts, or chronically homeless - are increasingly considered clients within the system, for whom choices can thoughtfully be framed.

One useful application of this concept is to consider how prisoners’ decision-making processes can be shaped to reduce crime. This can potentially be done by leveraging the power of one of the most effective investigative tools of the day: DNA evidence. Over the last decade, most states have expanded their DNA collection programs to include most convicted offenders, as well as some arrestees, in their databases. Evidence from crime scenes can then be matched against these databases to identify and apprehend otherwise unknown suspects. Our research at the Urban Institute has found that the collection and processing of DNA evidence can increase the probability of identifying an unknown suspect tenfold. Clearly, the effectiveness of criminal investigations can be greatly enhanced through the use of this technology.

In addition to apprehending suspects, this technology may have an additional benefit of deterring offenders from committing future crimes. The logic of deterrence is straightforward: A rational actor will commit a crime only if he or she perceives that the benefits of doing so exceed the costs. If people leaving prisons are rational actors, the knowledge that their DNA has been collected and retained for future investigations should, in theory, cause them to commit fewer crimes by increasing their perceived risk of engaging in criminal activity.

In practice, however, the business of shaping offenders’ behavior is much more complicated. Much debate exists among criminologists, sociologists, and economists about the extent to which criminal offenders truly are rational actors. Some argue that people who commit crimes have poor decision-making skills and place a low value on their future. A recent study conducted by Avi Bhati investigated the deterrent effects of DNA evidence by testing whether adding a convicted offender to a DNA database changed their subsequent behavior. He found that while adding someone to a database greatly increased the chance that they would be identified during a criminal investigation, it had virtually no effect on their future offending.

Although deterrence theory is not without controversy, many new criminal justice interventions are predicated on the concept that offenders behave as rational actors. Modeled off the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, recent interventions are based on the simple idea that if the certainty of sanctions increases, offenders will commit fewer infractions. HOPE puts this principle into practice by drug testing probationers and responding immediately to any positive tests, often with a short stay in jail. By increasing the costs of drug use in this way, HOPE tips the cost-benefit balance away from crime and reduces offending.

The success of HOPE indicates that offenders may, in fact, respond to deterrent tactics when the threat of punishment is certain and closely follows the crime. So why did Bhati find that collecting offenders DNA does not deter? It may be that their DNA was collected too far in the past to affect their post-release offending. The solution is to make the threat of punishment clearer and more immediate. The intervention, then, is simple: Offenders need to be made aware of the effectiveness of DNA evidence in apprehending suspects and reminded that their DNA can be used to aid future criminal investigations. These messages should be delivered frequently and strategically, such as while offenders are transitioning out of prison and at their subsequent parole meetings. By making offenders more aware of the risks of participation in further criminal activity, DNA evidence may be able to become a powerful, low-cost tool to deter future crime as well as apprehend suspects.

Illustration by Tim Meko/The Urban Institute.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics Forensic science Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center