Among the many issues where liberals and conservatives vehemently disagree: the best ways to bring down crime rates. Toughen law enforcement, argue those on the right. Address deeper societal issues like poverty, retort those on the left.
In social science terms, this translates into a debate between economists, who argue the probability of arrest—and severity of punishment—deter potential criminals; and sociologists, who focus on the breakdown of social structures that inhibit criminal impulses.
So who has the better argument? Newly published research suggests the most effective way to understand the behavior of criminals, and devise ways to prevent crime, is to integrate the two approaches.
"The severity of punishment seems to have no influence at all."
Writing in the Social Science Journal, a research team led by economist Peter-Jan Engelen of Utrecht University in the Netherlands describes a study in which they examined rates of violence and property crime in all 100 North Carolina counties between 2001 and 2005. The researchers factored in a variety of economic and sociological variables for each county, and then applied different proposed models to see if they successfully predicted rates of crime.
Their results suggests the model favored by economists is half-right.
"We find strong support in our results that the probability of arrest, and the probability of imprisonment, have the desired effect of deterring crime," the researchers write. "We find this deterrence effect both for property and violent crimes."
"In sharp contrast, the severity of punishment seems to have no influence at all," they add. "We hypothesized that introducing such punishments as life imprisonment and capital punishment would strongly deter (violent crime). This did not turn out to be the case."
"With respect to the sociological theories of crime, we find most support for the social disorganization theory, and for the routine-activity theory," they write. The latter theory proposes that, the more a person is exposed to criminal behavior on a regular basis, the greater the likelihood they will commit a crime themselves.
In support of that notion, the researchers found living in a large household was negatively related to being convicted of property crimes. This, they write, suggests "the presence of more supervision at the family level will lead to less opportunity to commit crimes."
Social disorganization theory argues that certain neighborhood characteristics—a low-income, transient population composed of people from different ethnic groups—"would lead to higher levels of crime, as this would weaken the structural bonds within a community."
"Our results support this hypothesis for both property and violent crime," they write.
Not surprisingly, the researchers find "higher poverty levels are associated with higher crime levels." But, somewhat counterintuitively, they found this only held true for property crimes, not violent ones.
Engelen and his colleagues believe these results have important policy implications. They argue that, rather than focusing on lengthy prison sentences, which are expensive and do not deter crime, "government focus should be on rehabilitation, decreasing poverty, and improving social controls."
So crime can be reduced if potential criminals have a reasonable belief they will be caught and convicted, and if they live in households and neighborhoods where positive cultural norms are shared, taught, and informally enforced.
That means the left and right both have a point, and there's no reason their approaches can't be integrated. If our goal is to create a safer society, this research suggests that's our best bet.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.