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.
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