Kevin Lewis

May 10, 2019

Reducing Crime Through Environmental Design: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment of Street Lighting in New York City
Aaron Chalfin et al.
NBER Working Paper, May 2019


This paper offers experimental evidence that crime can be successfully reduced by changing the situational environment that potential victims and offenders face. We focus on a ubiquitous but surprisingly understudied feature of the urban landscape – street lighting – and report the first experimental evidence on the effect of street lighting on crime. Through a unique public partnership in New York City, temporary streetlights were randomly allocated to public housing developments from March through August 2016. We find evidence that communities that were assigned more lighting experienced sizable reductions in crime. After accounting for potential spatial spillovers, we find that the provision of street lights led, at a minimum, to a 36 percent reduction in nighttime outdoor index crimes.

Not So Black and White: Uncovering Racial Bias from Systematically Masked Police Reports
Elizabeth Luh
University of Houston Working Paper, March 2019


Biased police officers may purposely mis-record, or mask, the race of citizens that they interact with in order to evade detection. Indeed, journalists uncovered widespread evidence of such masking among Texas Highway troopers from 2010 to 2015. I propose a new test of racial bias in the presence of masking that is more powerful than standard tests and is well-suited to explore the rich heterogeneity in bias. Using various data-driven techniques to detect masking, I estimate that 24% of 130,240 searches were masked, with over half being Hispanic drivers being mis-recorded as White when searches failed to turn up contraband. I find that Hispanic and White troopers are biased against non-White motorists, with Hispanic motorists being treated the most unfairly. Using my model, I also find evidence of institutional racial bias and ‘bad apple’ troopers across Texas.

The Effectiveness of White-Collar Crime Enforcement: Evidence from the War on Terror
Trung Nguyen
Harvard Working Paper, November 2017


This paper studies the deterrent effect of criminal enforcement on white-collar criminal activities. Using the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a shock to the FBI’s allocation of investigative resources and priorities, and variations in the Muslim population in the United States as a measure of geographic variations in the shock, I examine two questions: (1) Does the bureau’s shift to counter-terrorism investigations after 9/11 lead to a reduction in the enforcement of laws targeting white-collar crime? (2) Does white-collar crime increase as a result of less oversight? Using a difference-in-differences estimation approach, I find that there is a significantly greater reduction in white-collar criminal cases referred by FBI field offices that shift their investigative focus away from white-collar crime to counter-terrorism. I also find that areas overseen by FBI field offices that shift their attention from white-collar crime to counter-terrorism experience a significantly greater increase in wire fraud, illegal insider trading activities, and fraud within financial institutions.

A randomized control trial evaluating the effects of police body-worn cameras
David Yokum, Anita Ravishankar & Alexander Coppock
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


Police body-worn cameras (BWCs) have been widely promoted as a technological mechanism to improve policing and the perceived legitimacy of police and legal institutions, yet evidence of their effectiveness is limited. To estimate the effects of BWCs, we conducted a randomized controlled trial involving 2,224 Metropolitan Police Department officers in Washington, DC. Here we show that BWCs have very small and statistically insignificant effects on police use of force and civilian complaints, as well as other policing activities and judicial outcomes. These results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations of BWCs’ ability to induce large-scale behavioral changes in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, DC.

Do Police Maximize Arrests or Minimize Crime? Evidence from Racial Profiling in U.S. Cities
Allison Stashko
Georgetown University Working Paper, May 2018


It is difficult to know if racial discrepancies in police stop and search data are caused by racial bias or statistical discrimination. In part, this is due to uncertainty over the benchmark of unbiased police behavior: do officers aim to maximize arrests or to minimize crime? In this paper, I compare models of the two police objectives to data from U.S. cities. Empirical evidence is consistent with a model of arrest maximization and inconsistent with a model of crime minimization. These findings support the validity of existing tests for racial bias that rely on the assumption that police maximize arrests.

The criminogenic and psychological effects of police stops on adolescent black and Latino boys
Juan Del Toro et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 23 April 2019, Pages 8261-8268


Proactive policing, the strategic targeting of people or places to prevent crimes, is a well-studied tactic that is ubiquitous in modern law enforcement. A 2017 National Academies of Sciences report reviewed existing literature, entrenched in deterrence theory, and found evidence that proactive policing strategies can reduce crime. The existing literature, however, does not explore what the short and long-term effects of police contact are for young people who are subjected to high rates of contact with law enforcement as a result of proactive policing. Using four waves of longitudinal survey data from a sample of predominantly black and Latino boys in ninth and tenth grades, we find that adolescent boys who are stopped by police report more frequent engagement in delinquent behavior 6, 12, and 18 months later, independent of prior delinquency, a finding that is consistent with labeling and life course theories. We also find that psychological distress partially mediates this relationship, consistent with the often stated, but rarely measured, mechanism for adolescent criminality hypothesized by general strain theory. These findings advance the scientific understanding of crime and adolescent development while also raising policy questions about the efficacy of routine police stops of black and Latino youth. Police stops predict decrements in adolescents’ psychological well-being and may unintentionally increase their engagement in criminal behavior.

The Effects of Legislation Mandating DNA Testing in Sexual Assault Cases: Results in Texas
Robert Davis et al.
Violence Against Women, forthcoming


Many cities and states have taken steps to identify and process all untested sexual assault kits (SAKs). Texas was one of the first states to enact such legislation — SB 1636 — which created a time line for a statewide audit and mandatory testing of SAKs. A mixed-methods approach was used to assess the effects of SB 1636 at both state and local levels. The study did not detect any effect of SB 1636 on reporting, arrests, or convictions. The legislation did have a significant effect on criminal justice workloads, particularly crime laboratories.

How Do Summer Youth Employment Programs Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes, and for Whom?
Alicia Sasser Modestino
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, forthcoming


Cities across the U.S. have turned to summer youth employment programs (SYEPs) to improve the behavioral, economic, and academic outcomes of inner‐city youth. This paper evaluates the impact of the Boston Summer Youth Employment Program using both experimental and non‐experimental variation. Similar to previous studies of summer jobs programs in other cities, I make use of an embedded randomized controlled trial and find that the program reduces violent crime by 35 percent, as measured by the number of arraignments from administrative records during the 17 months after participation. In contrast to prior work, I also find a similar reduction in arraignments for property crimes (−29 percent). This study also provides exploratory evidence on the mechanisms driving these reductions in crime using self‐reported responses of participants from a pre‐/post‐program survey. The results provide suggestive evidence that the beneficial impacts on violent and property crime are largely driven by improved conflict resolution skills versus other factors that would increase the opportunity cost of crime. These findings give researchers some insights into the behavioral changes that occur during the program while also providing a look inside the “black box” as to how SYEPs affect youth outcomes in the long run.

Learning on the job: Studying expertise in residential burglars using virtual environments
Claire Nee et al.
Criminology, forthcoming


In this article, we describe a quasi‐experiment in which experienced incarcerated burglars (n = 56), other offenders (n = 50), and nonoffenders (n = 55) undertook a mock burglary within a virtual neighborhood. We draw from the cognitive psychology literature on expertise and apply it to offending behavior, demonstrating synergy with rational choice perspectives, yet extending them in several respects. Our principal goal was to carry out the first robust test of expertise in offenders by having these groups undertake a burglary in a fully fledged reenactment of a crime in a virtual environment. Our findings indicate that the virtual environment successfully reinstated the context of the crime showing clear differences in the decision making of burglars compared with other groups in ways commensurate with expertise in other behavioral domains. Specifically, burglars scoped the neighborhood more thoroughly, spent more time in the high‐value areas of the crime scene while traveling less distance there, and targeted different goods from the comparison groups. The level of detail in the data generated sheds new light on the cognitive processes and actions of burglars and how they “learn on the job.” Implications for criminal decision‐making perspectives and psychological theories of expertise are discussed.

Schools, Neighborhoods, and the Long-Run Effect of Crime-Prone Peers
Stephen Billings & Mark Hoekstra
NBER Working Paper, April 2019


This paper examines how elementary-aged peers affect cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes from adolescence to adulthood. We identify effects by exploiting within-school and within-neighborhood variation in the proportion of peers with an arrested parent. Results indicate exposure to these peers reduces achievement and increases antisocial behavior during middle and high school. More importantly, we estimate that a five percentage point increase in school and neighborhood crime-prone peers increases arrest rates at age 19 - 21 by 6.5 and 2.6 percent, respectively. Additional evidence suggests these effects are due to attending school with crime-prone peers, rather than living in the same neighborhood.

Do politics Trump race in determining America's youths' perceptions of law enforcement?
Adam Fine, Zachary Rowan & Cortney Simmons
Journal of Criminal Justice, March–April 2019, Pages 48-57

Method: Using data drawn from the Monitoring the Future study, the current study examines how race and political preference might jointly influence the way youth (12th graders) viewed law enforcement from 2005 to 2016.

Results: In all years, White Democrats reported worse perceptions of law enforcement than did White Republicans, yet the gap in perceptions has been growing in recent years. In contrast, Democratic and Republican Latinx youth reported similar perceptions of law enforcement until 2012, at which point Democratic Latinx youth began reporting worse perceptions than Republican Latinx youth. Finally, there were no discernable differences in Black youths' perceptions of law enforcement by political party across the years.

Does gang membership pay? Illegal and legal earnings through emerging adulthood
Megan Bears Augustyn, Jean Marie McGloin & David Pyrooz
Criminology, forthcoming


Gang membership is believed to impede success in the legitimate economic market while simultaneously supporting success in the illegal market. We extend the study of the economic effects of gang membership by using a within‐ and between‐individual analytic design, decomposing gang membership into multiple statuses (i.e., entering a gang, continuously in a gang, leaving a gang, and inactive gang membership), examining legal and illegal earnings simultaneously, and accounting for factors endogenous to gang membership that may contribute to economic achievement. By using panel data from 1,213 individuals who participated in the Pathways to Desistance Study to conduct a multilevel path analysis, we find that active gang membership status is unrelated to legal earnings. Alternatively, entering a gang is associated with increased illegal earnings, attributable to changes in delinquent peers and drug use, whereas leaving a gang has a direct relationship with decreased illegal earnings. Our results indicate that the positive economic effect of gang membership (i.e., illegal earnings and total earnings) is short‐lived and that, on balance, the sum of the gang membership experience does not “pay” in terms of overall earnings.

Universal Cash and Crime
Brett Watson, Mouhcine Guettabi & Matthew Reimer
Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming


We estimate the effects of universal cash transfers on crime from Alaska's Permanent Fund Dividend, an annual lump-sum payment to all Alaska residents. We find a 14% increase in substance-abuse incidents the day after the payment and a 10% increase over the following four weeks. This is partially offset by a 8% decrease in property crime, with no changes in violent crimes. On an annual basis, however, changes in criminal activity from the payment are small. Estimated costs comprise a very small portion of the total payment, suggesting that crime-related concerns of a universal cash transfer program may be unwarranted.

Arena-based events and crime: An analysis of hourly robbery data
Justin Kurland
Applied Economics, April 2019, Pages 3947-3957


This article makes use of hourly crime counts to model the relationship between events that take place at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ and robberies, an arena that has caused local controversy regarding the costs and benefits of hosting such an entertainment venue. Results from the econometric model suggest that the NHL’s New Jersey Devils ice hockey games, concerts, and Disney-themed events are all associated with increases in robbery, while various other event categories such as the NBA basketball games played by the Nets and boxing, and mixed martial arts (MMA) matches are not associated with an increase. These findings support two complementary ecological theories of crime that focus on how events provide additional opportunities for crime by increasing the associated benefits while simultaneously decreasing the cost for economically motivated offenders to take advantage of.

Yelping about a good time: Casino popularity and crime
Virginia Sosa, Gisela Bichler & Lianna Quintero
Criminal Justice Studies, forthcoming


Electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) is fast becoming a standard medium of communication when people are looking for information about where to go for a good time. Exploring the content of reviews posted online could expose criminogenic conditions associated with properties, thereby providing an opportunity to examine crime problems afflicting private facilities with public data. This study investigates whether Yelp comments, together with property characteristics, can account for crime and deviance occurring at or near casinos in Southern California. While a correlational analysis revealed that two Yelp-based variables – property magnetism and star ratings – were associated with fewer reported issues of crime and deviance, a multivariate analysis revealed the complex nature of risky facilities. Holding all other factors constant, perceived staff friendliness and casino magnetism are significantly related to higher crime rates. Notably, the presence of slot machines is associated with lower crime, irrespective of crime measure used. Study limitations restrict generalizability; however, these findings suggest that public data can be used to investigate the criminogenic capacity of risky-facilities.

Exploring violence: The role of neighborhood characteristics, alcohol outlets, and other micro-places
Aleksandra Snowden
Social Science Research, forthcoming


This study explores the association between neighborhood characteristics, alcohol outlets, other micro-places, and neighborhood violence rates. Prior studies that examined the alcohol availability and violence associations suggested that alcohol outlets play an important role in violent outcomes, yet we know less about the larger environment in which alcohol outlets are located, including how the availability of other types of places that exist side by side with alcohol outlets in neighborhoods could influence the alcohol-violence relationships. I collected publicly available data on simple and aggravated assaults, neighborhood characteristics (concentrated disadvantage, concentrated immigration, residential stability, and ethnic heterogeneity), on- and off-premise outlets, and other micro-places (colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, financial services, gas stations, hotels and motels, laundromats, parks and playgrounds, and rooming houses) and subsequently aggregated the data to Milwaukee, Wisconsin census block groups. I estimated spatially lagged regression models to test these associations and compared the results across the models. The findings show that some neighborhood characteristics and some micro-places are important predictors of neighborhood violence. Importantly, off-premise alcohol outlets have a consistently significant positive relationship with simple and aggravated assaults, even when the influence of the neighborhood characteristics and micro-places is accounted for in the models. This study contributes to the environmental criminology theories and alcohol availability theory by highlighting the importance of off-premise outlets as crime attractors and crime generators to explain violence.

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