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Why Do Increased Arrest Rates Appear to Reduce Crime: Deterrence, Incapacitation, or Measurement Error?

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  • Steven D. Levitt

Abstract

A strong, negative empirical correlation exists between arrest rates and reported crime rates. While this relationship has often been interpreted as support for the deterrence hypothesis, it is equally consistent with incapacitation effects, and/or a spurious correlation that would be induced by measurement error in reported crime rates. This paper attempts to discriminate between deterrence, incapacitation, and measurement error as explanations for the empirical relationship between arrest rates and crime. Using a modified version of the techniques of Griliches and Hausman (1986) for dealing with measurement error in panel data, this paper first demonstrates that the presence of measurement error does not appear to explain the observed relationship between arrest rates and crime rates. To differentiate between deterrence and incapacitation, the impact of changes in the arrest rate for one crime on the rate of other crimes is examined. In contrast to the effect of increased arrests for one crime on the commission of that crime, where deterrence and incapacitation are indistinguishable, it is demonstrated that these two forces act in opposite directions when looking across crimes. Incapacitation suggests that an increase in the arrest rate for one crime will reduce all crime rates; deterrence predicts that an increase in the arrest rate for one crime will lead to a rise in other crimes as criminals substitute away from the first crime. Empirically, deterrence appears to be the more important factor, particularly for property crimes.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven D. Levitt, 1995. "Why Do Increased Arrest Rates Appear to Reduce Crime: Deterrence, Incapacitation, or Measurement Error?," NBER Working Papers 5268, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5268
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    1. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters,in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    9. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1981. "On the Usefulness of Controlling Individuals: An Economic Analysis of Rehabilitation, Incapacitation, and Deterrence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(3), pages 307-322, June.
    10. Levitt, Steven D, 1997. "Using Electoral Cycles in Police Hiring to Estimate the Effect of Police on Crime," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(3), pages 270-290, June.
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    12. James Andreoni, 1991. "Reasonable Doubt and the Optimal Magnitude of Fines: Should the Penalty Fit the Crime?," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 22(3), pages 385-395, Autumn.
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    JEL classification:

    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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