Crime & Criminal Justice Policy Research

Crime & Criminal Justice Policy Initiative:

Beyond the roughly 2 million Americans who are incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, the criminal justice system affects enormous numbers of families and communities in countless and profound ways. Contact with the system can have serious consequences for one’s ability to secure a job, qualify for benefits, and find stable housing, among other consequences. Given the serious concerns about racial disparities, high costs, and the general humanity of the system, it is imperative that thoughtful and deliberate policy research guide reform efforts at the local, state, and federal level. The Crime and Criminal Justice Policy Initiative, led by Professor Steven Raphael, employs rigorous social scientific research methods to help inform criminal justice policy deliberation among researchers, at think tanks, and at agencies at all levels of government. Through theoretical modeling, quasi-experimental and experimental empirical study, the initiative investigates issues ranging from drug interdiction efforts in U.S. prisons, to pre-trial detention policy, to racially disparate impacts of policing practice. 

Faculty Lead:

Steven Raphael, Professor of Public Policy. 

Affiliated Faculty:

Avi Feller, Assistant Professor of Public Policy.


Over the past three decades, considerable research effort has been devoted to articulating and measuring the various pathways through which crime and our public and private responses to crime impact overall wellbeing.  An important sub‐strata of this research focuses on placing a monetary value on the social costs of criminal victimization. In this paper, we review the theoretical paradigm underlying cost‐benefit analysis and address some of the critiques of this framework that have arisen within criminal justice circles and other policy areas.  Next we review existing studies devoted to estimating the costs of specific crimes. We begin with a brief discussion categorizing the alternative costs of crime and the various methodological approaches taken (hedonic analysis, contingent valuation, accounting methods), with an explicit discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach and debates within the economics profession pertaining to these methodologies.    We argue that cost considerations broadly defined should be of central importance in criminal justice policy debates.   However, we also highlight the potential for cost‐consideration and important equity criteria to come into conflict.   Furthermore, we place greater confidence in the use of cost‐of‐crime estimates to judge the relative effectiveness of alternative interventions, but are cautious regarding policy prescriptions emanating from benefit‐cost ratios that are marginally greater than one. 

We test for an effect of Arizona’s 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA) on the proportion of the state’s population characterized as noncitizen Hispanic. We use the synthetic control method to select a group of states against which Arizona’s population trends can be compared. We document a notable and statistically significant reduction in the proportion of the Hispanic noncitizen population in Arizona. The decline observed matches the timing of LAWA’s implementation, deviates from the time series for the synthetic control group, and stands out relative to the distribution of placebo estimates for other states in the nation.

We evaluate the effect of perhaps the largest exogenous decline in a state’s incarceration rate in U.S. history on local crime rates.   We assess the effects of a recent reform in California that caused a sharp and permanent reduction in the state’s incarceration rate.   We exploit the large variation across California counties in the effect of this reform on county‐specific prison incarceration rates.    We find very little evidence of an effect of the large reduction in incarceration rates on violent crime and evidence of modest effects on property crime, auto theft in particular.    These effects are considerably smaller than existing estimates in the literature based on panel data for periods of time when the U.S. incarceration rate was considerably lower.    We corroborate theses cross‐county results with a synthetic‐cohort analysis of state crime rates in California.  This state‐wide analysis confirms our findings from the county‐level analysis.  In conjunction with existing published research, the results from this study support the hypothesis of a crime‐prison effect that diminishes with the scale of incarceration.

Between 1975 and 2007, the American incarceration rate increased nearly fivefold, a historic increase that puts the United States in a league of its own among advanced economies. We incarcerate more people today than we ever have, and we stand out as the nation that most frequently uses incarceration to punish those who break the law. What factors explain the dramatic rise in incarceration rates in such a short period of time? In Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll analyze the shocking expansion of America’s prison system and illustrate the pressing need to rethink mass incarceration in this country.

In August 2006, the Italian government released one-third of the nation's prison inmates via a national collective pardon. We test for a discontinuous break in national crime rates corresponding to the mass release. We also test for the effect of the return of the incarceration rate to its predicted steady state level on national crime rates. Finally, we exploit regional variation in prison releases based on the province of residence of pardoned inmates. All three sources of variation yield substantial incapacitation effect estimates and suggest that the crime-preventing effects of incarceration diminish with increases in the incarceration rate.