The great flaw in our fight against crime

Peter R. Orszag
Peter R. Orszag

In preparing for a White House conference this week, I’ve reviewed the recent data on the fight against crime. And it’s depressing. For example, the share of violent crimes in the U.S. for which arrests are made is low – less than half in 2014, the FBI reports. For burglaries, the share was only 14 percent.

That points to the great flaw in how we’ve been fighting crime: We’ve relied too much on longer prison sentences. A wide variety of evidence suggests lengthy prison sentences do little to prevent crime and may create more recidivism.

A better approach involves not only expanding education and employment opportunities, but also increasing the odds that a criminal will be captured.

Raising that probability seems far more likely to deter crime than longer prison sentences do. After all, most people seem more motivated by near-term consequences (the chance of arrest) than long-term ones.

Raising the capture rate is doable.

In Milan, Italy, for almost a decade, police have used KeyCrime, software that predicts robberies based on the date, time and location of past incidents, along with details about the criminals involved and their weapons.

Although many police departments are developing similar algorithms, Milan provides an especially good test case because, for historical reasons, it has two separate police forces: the regular police and the gendarmerie. Each day, they alternate protecting different parts of the city. And while the regular police have relied heavily on KeyCrime (which they invented), the gendarmerie has not. The result is as close as you can get to randomly assigning the software.

The experiment’s data indicate the software has been effective, Giovanni Mastrobuoni, an economist at the University of Essex, has found. For the police using KeyCrime, the share of repeat robberies leading to an arrest was more than 50 percent higher than it was for the gendarmerie. (That the differences occurred only among repeat offenders shows the software needs initial inputs about a criminal to predict future activity.)

But even with KeyCrime, the arrest rates were still quite low.

Beyond improved information technology, it is essential to reduce police response time, which substantially improves detection rates. This requires more resources for police – which is consistent with evidence that more police are associated with less crime – along with more extensive use of predictive software. And it’s crucial that police are integrated into the local community.

In addition to the law enforcement measures, minimizing crime requires improving employment opportunities, education and health care. Locking up criminals who are caught and effectively throwing away the key has proven to be the wrong approach.

Bloomberg View columnist Peter R. Orszag was previously President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.