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A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Individual Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System



This paper examines perceptions of the criminal justice system held by young males using longitudinal survey data from the recent National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Cohort and the National Youth Survey. First, a model is developed to study how perceptions respond to individual information about the probability of arrest and how perceptions affect criminal behavior. Then, the model is shown to be consistent with the data. Young males who engage in crime but are not arrested revise their perceived probability of arrest downward, while those who are arrested revise their probability upwards. The perceived probability of arrest is then linked to subsequent criminal behavior -- youth with a lower perceived probability of arrest are significantly more likely to engage in crime during subsequent periods. Perceived probabilities of arrest appear to be idiosyncratic and individual-specific. As a result, information about the arrests of others, local neighborhood conditions, and official arrest rates have little impact on the perceptions of any given individual about his own arrest rate. Another interesting feature of the data on perceptions includes the finding that young males typically report a higher probability of arrest than is actually observed in official arrest rates. Consistent with the model, perceived arrest probabilities among those engaged in crime are lower than those of non-criminals. Despite substantial heterogeneity in the perceived probability of arrest across individuals, those perceptions are difficult to predict from standard background measures, ability, and neighborhood characteristics. Most notably, there do not appear to be substantial differences in perceptions across race and ethnicity for most of the crimes studied. These findings suggest that heterogeneity in perceptions may be an important cause for differences in criminal participation across individuals. Furthermore, those perceptions can be influenced by the justice system. A model of belief updating and criminal behavior that is consistent with the data suggests that policies enacted to change the actual probability of arrest will have heterogeneous effects on individuals with different crime and arrest histories, but increases in true arrest rates will lower crime. Since it may take time for information about changes in actual arrest rates to disseminate, changes in enforcement policy are likely to have lagged effects on crime rates.

Suggested Citation

  • Lance Lochner, 2001. "A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Individual Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System," RCER Working Papers 483, University of Rochester - Center for Economic Research (RCER).
  • Handle: RePEc:roc:rocher:483

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Steven D. Levitt, 1998. "Juvenile Crime and Punishment," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 106(6), pages 1156-1185, December.
    2. Charles F. Manski, 1993. "Adolescent Econometricians: How Do Youth Infer the Returns to Schooling?," NBER Chapters,in: Studies of Supply and Demand in Higher Education, pages 43-60 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Ann Dryden Witte, 1980. "Estimating the Economic Model of Crime With Individual Data," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 94(1), pages 57-84.
    4. Tauchen, Helen & Witte, Ann Dryden & Griesinger, Harriet, 1994. "Criminal Deterrence: Revisiting the Issue with a Birth Cohort," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 76(3), pages 399-412, August.
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. Cameron, Samuel, 1988. "The Economics of Crime Deterrence: A Survey of Theory and Evidence," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 41(2), pages 301-323.
    8. Viscusi, W Kip, 1986. "The Risks and Rewards of Criminal Activity: A Comprehensive Test of Criminal Deterrence," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4(3), pages 317-340, July.
    9. Waldfogel, Joel, 1993. "Criminal Sentences as Endogenous Taxes: Are They "Just" or "Efficient"?," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 36(1), pages 139-151, April.
    10. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1973. "Participation in Illegitimate Activities: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 81(3), pages 521-565, May-June.
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    Cited by:

    1. D. Lee Heavner & Lance Lochner, 2002. "Social Networks and the Aggregation on Individual Decisions," NBER Working Papers 8979, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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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
    • D8 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty

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