10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The murder toll in Trinidad and Tobago has reached 164--that's an 8.6 percent increase from last year's total on 151, and the year is not quite over yet. Nicholas points to an op-ed in the Trinidad Express by Kirk Meighoo, a sociologist (and, may I add, one of my former lecturers) who says "We are witnessing an embryonic development of Jamaican-style politics, in which “dons”, drug lords, and other criminals are essential parts of the state and political party system." Nicholas also links to a letter to the editor by his former colleague Peter Popplewell, who says that education is the answer.

What do I have to say about the angst and turmoil in my home island? I could counsel for a long-term solution, like Popplewell does, or criticise the performance of the government. While I do share in the criticism, I would like to help find a solution. With my limited knowledge, I offer my two cents.

In the first chapter of his book The Armchair Economist, Steven Landsburg says that most of economics can be summarised in the four-word phrase "people respond to incentives". Crime is no different, and an economic analysis can provide much insight on what Nicholas calls a "callous disregard for the lives, safety & property of others". The economic analysis of crime was a field invented in 1968, when Gary Becker's paper, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Behind his model lay a simple assumption--that criminals are rational actors, and they engage in crime because it is the most attractive ("utility-maximising", in economic terms) option available to them. Costs and benefits, from the criminal's perspective, are broadly considered; Ricardo Lagos, an assistant professor of economics at New York University, writes:

From an individual's point of view, a key element entering the criminal decision must be the rate of return on illegal activities relative to the rate of return on legitimate ones. The expected pay-off depends on three factors: the size of the reward (supposing the crime was successful); the probability of being caught and convicted; and the severity of the punishment. The opportunity cost of engaging in criminal activity is given by the rate of return on legitimate market activity. This depends on the wage at which the person could find employment; the likelihood of employment (i.e. the chances of finding a job if that person is unemployed and of keeping it if they are employed); income during periods of unemployment; and future job prospects (such as expected wages and the probability of getting and keeping a job).

Leaving aside the potential reward from criminal activity, we would expect a negative correlation (or inverse relationship) between the factors listed above and the crime rate. If potential criminals do respond to the relative rate of return from crime as determined by those variables, then changes and trends in crime rates could in turn be associated with changes and trends in these variables. This would then provide policymakers with a much wider range of policy tools with which to try to combat crime.


Popplewell is therefore right--education is important, as are meaningful career and earning opportunities. Becker himself says:

In pretty much every society that we know about, the poor and less-educated are more likely to commit more violent crimes. Contrariwise, the more-educated are more likely to commit embezzlements and various white-collar crimes. Why should that be so? I think a good part of the answer is that the poor and less educated don't have as many opportunities to earn. So the gain to them from spending time stealing, rather than from working at some legal job, is greater than it is for the more-educated. This story does not require assuming that the poor have low I.Q.s, an idea that has received some attention. It also does not require assumptions about genetics. It is simply that, being low-educated and having fewer alternatives, you will be more likely to commit crime. That may be reinforced by the tendency of poor families to be less stable and thus less likely to instill the view that crime is bad.


So far, so good. The trouble with this, though is that the solution is necessarily long-term; it will take years before there is any discernible impact, even if an ideal policy intervention is put into place. (That's also provided that a reasonable agreement on the form of such intervention could be made). The analysis so far, though, only looks at one side of the equation--the benefits to be gained from legal activity (the opportunity cost of criminal activity). Another means of intervention is to directly affect the costs of crimes, either by adjusting punishments, increasing the probability of capture and conviction. This, in the short run, is where the authorities in Jamaica, Guyana and now Trinidad and Tobago are failing.

In the World Bank Voices from the Poor report for Jamaica, the following observations were made about the police:

In urban communities, the Police force was widely seen as a negative influence on society. Except in Cassava Piece, all groups tended to view the Police as not committed to their responsibility for providing protection from criminals. Many groups, particularly males and especially younger men, vocalised concern over Police abuse. This typically takes the form of illicit fines and violence. Indeed some respondents seemed to suggest that the Police had the
capacity to inflict harm to the community, through involvement in criminal activities. In Cassava Piece all groups, with the exception of younger men, praised the Police as a positive institution because of the personal accessibility of the officer in charge.


The police cannot be expected to do anything about crime if the public they protect not only have no confidence in their ability to protect them, but also seem them as a menace. Amnesty International's 2002 report talks of 148 Jamaicans being killed by the police in 2001. Police in the West Indies are overly reactive; they respond to crime and deal with its aftermath, as opposed to preventing it and changing the cost-benefit calculation of potential criminals.

In the March 1982 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first put forward their notion of Broken Windows, the basis for New York City's successful crime-fighting strategy in he 1990s under Rudolph Guiliani and his first police commissioner William Bratton. Regarding the title subject, they say this:

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)


In London, where I currently live, there is a lot of graffiti, which is a stark change from when I first visited 12 years ago. Leave aside the prosecution and punishment for the offence; one "benefit" remains there for all to see--the artwork. A simple intervention that removes this benefit is cleaning it up; indeed, the city of Chicago, for example, has a programme dedicated to removing graffiti from both public and private property. The city government there sees the denial of posterity for graffiti artists as both an anti-crime strategy and a quality of life issue. Now there is a world of difference between graffiti and murder; what Wilson and Kelling suggest is that an environment in which there is graffiti is perceived as an unsafe enviroment; quoting Nathan Glazer, they say that "the proliferation of graffiti, even when not obscene, confronts the subway rider with the inescapable knowledge that the environment he must endure for an hour or more a day is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it to do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests".

One need not agree with the specifics of what Wilson and Kelling propose. It is one way, though, of taking an incentives-based approach to policing and criminal activity. Incentives are the reason why the Prime Minister's meeting with the gang leaders is a fundamental mistake--by sending the signal that he will reason with gang leaders, Manning is also showing that the cost of crime to criminals is going down, not up. Better to press on with the very-long term (though so far successful) strategies of reducing unemployment and improving primary education, while focusing the police on public order, preventing, and increasing the costs of, criminal acts.