Murder, For Half The Price

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow seized upon a study from Iowa to argue for the “pay now or pay later” approach to solving the “crime problem.” Blow, whose background is graphics design, explains:

When times get hard and talk turns to spending and budgets, there is one area that gets short shrift: the cost of crime and our enormous criminal justice system. For instance, how much do you think a single murder costs society? According to researchers at Iowa State University, it is a whopping $17.25 million.

Those researchers analyzed 2003 data from cases in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas and calculated the figure based on “victim costs, criminal justice system costs, lost productivity estimates for both the victim and the criminal, and estimates on the public’s resulting willingness to pay to prevent future violence.” That willingness to prevent future violence includes collateral costs like expenditures for security measures, insurance and government welfare programs. It’s hard to believe that they could calculate the collateral costs with any real degree of accuracy, but I understand the concept.

Well, that’s an awful lot of money.  Want to stop murder?  Let’s just line up all the inchoate murderers, pay them, say $500,000 to not do it, and we’ll save ourselves a bundle.  Even including my fee for handing out the checks (or maybe we can do it by debit card and save even more), there’s a fortune to be saved here.  And a million dollars saved is a mil earned, to borrow from Uncle Ben.

And what of other crimes?

(They also calculated that each rape costs $448,532, each robbery $335,733, each aggravated assault $145,379 and each burglary $41,288.)

We could probably stop all robberies for under $1000 each (plus my fee).  The savings would be astronomical.  From this, Blow concludes:

Many crimes could have been prevented if the offenders had had the benefit of a competent educational system and a more expansive, better-financed social service system. Sure, some criminals are just bad people, but more are people who took a wrong turn, got lost and ended up on the wrong path. Those we can save.

We have a choice to make: pay a little now or a lot later. Seems like a clear choice to me. But I’m not in Washington where they view clarity as an affliction of the weak.

Except, of course, this effort to pin a price on crime is utterly ridiculous.

I take no issue with Blow’s point, that funding education and smarter social services is both more effective and cost-beneficial than dropping the hammer after the damage has been done, but it’s studies like this, and op-eds that assume some level of credibility, that make sound policy sound absurd.  Want to kill a good idea?  Wrap it up in crap.

To much of the nation, the New York Times is the Liberal Manifesto, and any idea promoted therein is, by definition, a socialist plot to subvert America.  While this shouldn’t impede the Sulzbergers from doing whatever they need to do, it should make them reluctant to print such inanity that undermines good ideas with silly support.

The long-standing tension between tough on crime and smart on crime (notice how I give the side I prefer the “smart” name?) is coming ever closer to resolution, though the potential change in approach that some thought would follow the economic downturn hasn’t quite met expectations, as realization that the creation of more crimes and imposition of longer sentences hasn’t solved much of anything.  On the other hand, notice how every new headline crime begets a new headline law? 

But the effort is hardly furthered by irresponsible publication of laughable arguments. 

I’m not calling the Iowans liars or morons.  I’ve no doubt that the numbers are somehow valid, in some parallel academic universe, applying logic that defies any semblance of reality and, only by suspension of reality, linking together theoretical costs and values that would never otherwise exist (and then only if you hop up and down on your left foot while turning your head to the left and squinting).  No, I’m sure they have a basis for their numbers.

Yet, the promotion of this silliness in the Gray Lady on a subject that needs broader understanding and acceptance does no favors.  I remember some years ago reading an op-ed on a subject of some interest and controversy.  I wrote then that there are great arguments in favor of the proposition and great arguments against.  It was a shame that the author demonstrated no knowledge of either.

We need to stop ignoring the costs of mass criminalization and incarceration, both in terms of dollars as well as human capital.  This, unfortunately, is not the way to do it.  An op-ed like this is so ridiculous, so unreasonable, as to set back the cause rather than move it forward.  If we want to be smart on crime, let’s not be stupid in the media.  Please.

6 thoughts on “Murder, For Half The Price

  1. Lee

    I’m unclear on why you think this is such a stupid way to look at it. Seems you kind of set up a straw man as he was not arguing direct payments to potential perpetrators of crime. Rather, he was advocating shifting our focus and spending to areas that would reduce the societal factors that lead to crime in the first place. Its an argument I often make to laypeople who think we need to be tougher on crime by prosecuting more behavior and punishing it more harshly. I use the analogy of spending money building a home. If you spend the money up front to build a good foundation and put proper plumbing and wiring in, you’re going to save a lot of money that would be wasted on piecemeal repairs over the year. Likewise, as a society if we could stomach a serious upfront capital investment in education and social services, perhaps at the cost of misdemeanor prosecutions, we would have a society with less crime and less taxpayer cost to achieve that objection in 20-25 years (to say nothing of the significant benefits to spending on education other than preventing future crime). But, of course, spending on education and social services is simply socialism, we should spend that money on death penalty prosecutions and Tea parties.

  2. SHG

    Do you credit that every murder costs $17.25 million?  If not, then the argument relying on this incredible number is rendered similarly incredible.

  3. Stephen

    This is the unfortunate side effect of basing your argument on statistics – they have to be accurate or you’ve built your house on sand.

  4. Lee

    No, I don’t, but I guess why this does not end my consideration of the argument is he did’t need to establish for me that crime is very costly. I accept that proposition and his point can move on from there. Just because he offered unconvincing support for a point from where his argument builds does not mean that point is incorrect so I don’t consider it fatal.

  5. SHG

    Whether a reader finds the flawed stats “fatal” is up to the reader.  You are unlikely to be the typical reader.  The problem is that others may not be as likely to care enough about the issue to give it any further thought, or may be disinclined toward the issue and use these absurd numbers to justify their holding an opposing position.

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