Saturday, October 06, 2007

Freakonomists and incentives: Missing the point

Steven Levitt’s 10/5/07 Freakonomics column in the New York Times, “Looking to Live in a Community with Low Murder Rates? Try Committing a Crime” points out that the murder rate in prisons is lower than in many big cities.

“Ironically, however, some of the lowest murder rates are found in places where one might suspect just the opposite to be true: U.S. prisons.”

"In 2005, 56 prisoners were murdered. There are roughly 2 million inmates held in state prisons, meaning that the homicide rate per 100,000 prisoners last year was only 2.8. That number is less than half the rate of New York City (6.6 per 100,000) and an order of magnitude lower than Baltimore (42 per 100,000). Indeed, of the 66 largest cities in the United States, only El Paso, Tex. and Honolulu, Hawaii have lower homicide rates than the state prisons.”

Levitt attributes the low murder rate to prisons being a highly controlled environment.

“These low homicide and suicide rates are both testimony to the fact that prisons are incredibly highly controlled environments. Whenever I have visited prisons, I have been amazed at how safe I felt.”

How typical of Levitt to miss the point.

Anyone who has watched movies about prison knows that, for all practical purposes, nothing prevents one inmate from murdering another (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The safety of visitors to a prison does not imply the same safety for the inmates. Furthermore, Levitt’s feelings of safety are irrelevant; a prison visit does not make one a prison safety expert.
Could it be that the low murder rate in prisons reflects the fact that inmates contemplating violence against other inmates recognize that they may end up being the loser? Could it be that John Lott is right that felons are capable of assessing risks and act accordingly? Could it be that one way of lowering violent crime rates is to convince potential perpetrators that attempting a violent crime is dangerous?

In Florida, it is easy to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon. Potential perpetrators have to wonder whether the weak little old guy (me) could blow their brains out.

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