Joker: an evidence-based criminology review (spoilers)

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Last Friday, Joker hit cinemas to much acclaim and some anxiety. Hot takes claim it glamorizes violence while the Slate pitch is that it’s boring. Having seen it over the weekend, I don’t see anything more transgressive about it than the various Batman films to which Joker is a sort of prequel, but it is more entertaining.

 

The film uses both narrative and moral ambiguity driven by the theme of mental illness. We are not quite sure what’s real and what’s not. And what (if anything) is responsible for catastrophic events that turn wannabe standup-comedian Arthur Fleck into the Clown Prince of Crime. This ambiguity is in league with contemporary criminology. Many researchers now suspect that crimes are typically the result of multiple, incremental causes (little things going wrong) that together add up to sometimes catastrophic outcomes.


So with spoilers already skulking in the alleyways over the fold, let’s review some of 
Joker’s overlapping narrative alongside some theories of crime (some of which I draw from my forthcoming book chapter on evidence-based policing).

 

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Do we want criminals to ‘feel terror at the thought of committing crimes’?

Last week, Priti Patel, the new British Home Secretary, provoked a media stir when she announced that she thought the criminal justice system should aim to strike fear into the heart of criminals. Critics combined her new interview with her previous support for the death penalty, banned in the mainline UK since 1965, to suggest that Patel represents a draconian and reactionary turn in British law enforcement.

Then a couple of days ago, a YouGov survey showed, that 72 per cent of the British public agreed with her. Media commentators can forget quite how high support is for law and order among ordinary citizens. Support for the death penalty itself still attracts almost half of the population.

Are the public right? The meat of the Government’s new policy is an increase in the number of police officers; this at a time of increasing violent crime and concerns about rising knife crime in London. On that front, the evidence points in Patel’s favour. More police often reduce crime and do so through a variety of mechanisms, including situational deterrence (for example, patrolling in high-crime areas) as well as increasing detection rates. There is general agreement that increasing the certainty of apprehension contributes to deterrence.

What about punishment severity? There the evidence is decidedly more mixed. There is remarkably little evidence, for example, that the death penalty deters crimes like murder more than an appropriate prison sentence.  Using a new data set of sentencing practice in all police force areas in England and Wales, myself and some great colleagues at the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham produced a study just printed last month: ‘Alternatives to Custody’. We compared the way a previous year’s sentencing influenced the subsequent year’s recorded crime.

What we found was that for property crime, our largest category, and robbery, community sentences generally reduced crime more than prison. In fact, one of our models suggested increased use of prison caused subsequent crime to go up. On the other hand, prison seemed to work (and was the only thing that worked) to reduce violent crime and sexual offences. (We summarised our results for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.)

The lesson that we draw is that deterrence isn’t an overwhelming explanation of the impact of sentencing. Harsher sentencing probably works to deter some offenders. But at the same time carrying out punishments can have criminogenic effects. Experience of prison often makes convicts less employable and can effectively socialise them into having an enduring criminal identity. Of course, many offenders in the real-world are not particularly well informed about the criminal justice system. They may also have less self-control than a typical member of the public. So information about an increased penalty for a crime may never effectively filter into the deliberation and reflection of some offenders until they are sentenced, at which point you get the high financial and social costs of prison kicking in.

Getting caught by the police, perhaps on a few occasions,  is a more immediate sign to an offender that their behaviour is unlikely to pay off in the long-term. What does this mean for Patel? It suggests that fear of the consequences can play a role, but what we really need is graduated sanctions, avoiding prison when possible. This gives offenders plenty of options to exit a criminal career path. Relying on terror, by contrast, can lead to a large prison population producing a lot of stigmatized and harmed individuals who quite possibly will re-offend when they are released.

The nonexistent moral decay of the west

Humankind’s struggle with moral is of course nothing new, it rather inherent to our nature to revolt against the meaningless world and the manmade system of reason. Furthermore, moral values vary over a specific period of time swinging from rather high moral standards to very low ones. Regarding morality as an abstract compass guiding our thought, goals and behaviour, Economist, in general, are not known for dealing in depth with the metaphysical reason behind our behaviour yet they explore and explain human actions through our surrounding incentives, which also structure and direct our action. Economist such as Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson or William J. Baumol have explored these changes in human behaviour through changing incentive structures thoroughgoingly.

However, folks mourning the moral decline of today’s west often fail to provide concrete evidence for their argument. They either cherry-pick events or legislatures to infer a macro trend inductively or they lose themselves in difficult language trying to somehow save their argument by making it incomprehensible. I cannot help feeling that mourning the moral decay of the west has somehow become a shibboleth for eloquently expressing the “Things used to be way better back then” narrative. However, I admit that there were probably a couple of sociological papers who have covered this issue very well which I am unaware of. Contrary, the public debate was dominated by a few grumpy intellectuals holding the above-named attitude. I was recently provided with a very concrete set of indicators to measure moral decline while digging through Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous classic “The clash of civilization” from 1996. He states that there are five main criteria which indicate the ongoing decline of moral values in the West. [1]

After being provided with a concrete framework to quantify the moral decline of the west, I was keen to see how the moral decline of the west has developed in the 20 years since the book has first been published in 1996. Although I also take issue with some of these indicators to measure moral decline, I avoid any normative judgement in the first part and just look at their development over time. Furthermore, since Samuelson himself mostly takes data from the USA representing the West, I might as well do so too for the sake of simplicity. So, let’s see what happened to moral values in the West in the last years by checking each of Huntington’s indicator one by one.

1. Increasing antisocial behaviour such as acts of crime, drug use and general violence

Apart from the global long-term trend of declining homicides, we can also observe a recent downward trend in the reported violent crime rate since 1990 in the USA. Scholars agree that the crime rate is in an extreme decline. Expanding the realm towards Europe, you will see similar results (see here).

1Source: Statista

Despite these trends, the public (as well as some intellectuals as well I assume) vastly still holds a distorted perception of the crime rate. The sharp decline in actual crimes strongly contradicts the fact that a majority of the people still uphold the myth of increasing crime rates.

2

Source: Pew Research Center

Regarding drug use in the USA, it is important to mention that the absolute amount of illicit drugs consumed has slightly gone up since 1990. This development is mostly driven by an increasing  consumption of marijuana: Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined., states the National Institute on drug abuse in 2015.

Contrary, the number of deadly injections are increasing. However, the share of the population with drug use disorders has remained on the same level of 5.3% over the last 20 years.

2. Decay of the family resulting in increasing divorce rates, teenage motherhood and single parents

It is hard to measure the “Decay of the family” itself. Luckily, Huntington further concretizes his claim by naming some of the measurable effects. There is nothing much to do to refute these statement except for looking at the following graphs.

a) Firstly, the divorce rate is sharply declining.

3

Source: Statista

b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.

4Source: National Vita Statistics Report

c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.

5Source: Statista

I often take issue when (especially conservative) scholars mourn the declining importance of family. Even if there are certain indicators which would back up Huntington’s claims, he does not name them himself. While it is indeed true that “family” as an institution is undergoing changes, there is no evidence (at least named by Huntington) to back up the claim of a decline of its importance.

3. Declining “social capital” and voluntarism leading to less trust.

It is indeed true, that the adult volunteering rate declined from early 2000 to 2016 from 27.4% to 24.9%. Interestingly, it recently bounced back to a new high in 2018, hitting the 30% target. Really the only point where one must agree to Huntington’s claim is the decrease of interpersonal trust as well as trust in public institutions. This trend is indeed very worrisome considering that trust is a major factor for flourishing societies.

4. The decline in work ethic

The research here is a little bit tricky and points in both directions. Although there has been wide academic coverage of the millennial work ethic scholars could not find a consensus on this issue. Its is especially difficult to extract the generational influence from other key determinants of work ethic, such as position or age. Academics warn to mistake the ever-ongoing conflict between young vs. old with the Boomer vs. Millenial conflict. I haven’t settled my opinion on this one. These Articles from Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today provide a good overview of both sides of the medal.

5. Less general interest in Education

This indicator is particularly interesting for me because as a member of the 90’ generation, I have experienced quite the opposite in Germany. But let’s have a look at the data.

Despite ranking only in the middle in a global country comparison, the US students still made a huge leap in terms of maths and reading proficiency, which only slowed down in 2015:

6

Source: Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the overall educational level of the USA continues to rise, resulting in the fact that  “the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90% [for the first time ] in 2017.” Contrary, there are still major differences when one looks at features like race or parent household (See here), but the overall trajectory of the educational level is sloping upwards.

What do these criteria measure?

As you can see, there is little to no evidence to empirically back up the claim of western moral decay. Furthermore, while many case studies have shown that lack of interpersonal trust, lack of education or a declining work ethic can pose a great threat to society, I refuse to see a connection (a no known to me study disproves me here) between (recreational) drugs consumption, alternative family models, increasing hedonism and moral decline. Thus I believe that many advocates of the moral decay theory regard it as an opportunity to despise developments they personally do not like. I do not imply that everyone arguing for the moral decline of the west is unaware of the global macro-trends which heavily improved our life, but I highly doubt their assumption, that we are currently in a short-to-medium term “moral recession”. Even when one upholds the very conservative statements such as drug consumption adding to moral decline, is hard to argue that we are currently witnessing a moral decay of the west. Contrary, It may be true that Huntington has observed something different in the period before publishing “The clash of civilization” in 1996. Of course, I myself witness the ongoing battle against norms on the increasing hostility towards the intellectual enemy in the west, but one should always keep in mind the bigger picture. Our world is getting better – in the long- and in the short-run; There is no such thing as a moral decline of the West.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500

Nightcap

  1. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre Evan Bleier, RealClearLife
  2. The Sons of Mars and the ancient Mediterranean Erich Anderson, History Today
  3. The two trilemmas today Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. How the United States reinvented empire Patrick Iber, New Republic

Immigration: Not Opinions, Facts

Immigration is in our newspapers and on our screens every day. Yet, between the factual confusion of most Republicans and the insult-laden cheery irresponsibility of Democrats, little of substance is being said. Here are two central facts that are routinely ignored:

1 In practice, there is no legal path to immigration for 95% + of illegal immigrants. Asylum is a possibility for a tiny number among them. Poverty is not currently grounds for asylum. (See reference below.)

2 A forty year-old single immigrant from India with an engineering degree is unlikely to take more out of the public trough than he puts in. He is also very unlikely to commit a serious crime, especially a serious crime of violence. Now, consider younger immigrants from Central America, who have have few or no skills, who don’t know English, who may be semi-literate, or even illiterate in their own language. If they are female, they will probably cause a draw on the public treasury, if nothing else by sending to school children with special (linguistic) requirements, while contributing little to the financial maintenance of the same schools. That’s the optimistic case, where the children are healthy and normal.

If they are male, they will add to American crime, especially to violent crime because that’s the way it works: Younger, poor men, of no or low literacy are responsible for almost all of the violent crime in America. Note that this pronouncement does not contradict the findings of the excellent article by Michael T. Light and Ty Miller “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” published in the Journal Criminology, March 18th 2018. The study on which they report finds that an influx of illegal immigrants does not correspond to a higher crime rate. (Note: It’s a good study by any criteria – I am credentialed to judge.)

The point – beyond the sterile debate about immigrants’ crime rates – is that immigrants of the “right” (wrong) characteristics do not replace the native born one-for-one, including in the commission of crimes. They contribute their own deeds. Take the young California police officer named Singh who was murdered by a crime recidivist illegal alien in early 2019. If Officer Singh had not encountered his particular illegal alien killer, does anyone think that a citizen, or a legal alien would have stepped in to murder him?

This is an abstracted summary from my longer, informational essay on immigration: “Legal Immigration Into the United States.”

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 7): An Exemplary Social Science Attempt to Disentangle

Using estimations of the relationships between several sets of good data to infer causation is an old endeavor, of course. The difficulties to which I pointed above are not new. For a little over one hundred years, the social sciences have emerged largely with the mission to solve or circumvent such difficulties. Their efforts have been broadly productive; inferences of causation based on quantitative estimations that respect state-of-the-arts social science rules are more trustworthy than practically everything else. In brief, the more complex the issues under study, the more back-of-the-envelop calculations suffer in comparison with modern social science methodology. Issue of comparative immigrant vs native born criminality are pretty much at a level of complexity for which those methods were developed.

The rules of social science include an obligation to publish in scholarly journals where the findings will be subjected both to pre-publication and to post-publication critical assessment. (See my didactic essay on scholarly submission: “What’s Peer Review and What it Matters) Publication in scholarly journals also facilitates eventual attempts at replication with its potential to root out major research-based fallacies. I realize that duplication is a rare event, but the threat of it keeps researchers on their toes. Note: This doesn’t mean that the degree of confidence one should award to serious social science products should be high, in absolute terms. There is a difference in practice between, “bad,” and “very bad.” Also, in spite of formidable recent successful hoaxes against pseudo-journals, some disciplines hold the line, including left-leaning Sociology. (Read Gabriel Rossman’s “Sokal to the Nth Degree” in the November 8th-11th issue of the Weekly Standard.)

As it happens, there is a recent study that addresses the topic of immigration and criminality that fulfills good social science criteria. It’s Michael T. Light and Ty Miller, “Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime?” published in Criminology, March 3, 2018. The study relies on data from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, collected from 1990 to 2014, inclusive. Its design is reasonable; it allows for the observation of change over time in the relationships of interest. The 24-year period of observation is a convenience sample of any longer period one would prefer, but it’s not known to what extent it is representative of a longer period. This is a common limitation on interpretation. Twenty-four years of observation is a lot better than one year for the purpose of generalization though. The estimation methods used in their study to express the relationship between numbers of illegal immigrants, on the one hand, and several well accepted measures of serious criminality, on the other, are up-to date. The same methods allow for the elimination of alternative formulations – that is, they allow for “controlling” for variables other than the main variable of interest, the number of illegal immigrants. The article contains a useful and thorough review of the literature. It’s written with remarkable clarity, given the inherent complexity of the endeavor it describes.

The study gives a straightforward answer to the straightforward question it poses:

The increase in the number of illegal immigrants (in the US) is associated with a decrease in serious crime.

The authors dispose fairly well of an interpretation of these counter-intuitive findings based on the idea that more illegals results in less crime reporting in the relevant populations, rather than in actual decrease in crime. This explanation would make their startling main finding practically spurious.

It is not equally clear to me that the authors have disposed completely of the hypothesis that an influx of illegal immigrants is causally linked to stepped-up law enforcement, and only thence to crime reduction. This formulation has important policy implications. It says: Illegal immigration does not increase crime, provided you do what needs to be done about it. And, you may be lucky and overshoot your mark. Ideally, I would  have liked to see a measure of cost per some unit of crime reduction included in the estimation models.

It’s unfortunate for my purpose that this study focuses on illegal immigration specifically, since my own primary interest is in legal immigration. It matters little in the end because a secondary analysis within this study indicates that increase in legal immigration (considered separately from illegal immigration) is also associated with a decrease in serious crime.

As quantitative social scientists are unfortunately inclined to do, Light and Millet give us a literal expression of their main finding, like this (I think this practice, of making findings shout instead of whispering should be heavily taxed.):

A one-unit increase in the proportion of the population that is undocumented corresponds with a 12 percent decrease in violent crime.

We don’t have to take literally this metric wording and the causality it suggests. For example, there is no need to believe that if enough additional illegal immigrants enter the US, at some point, serious crime will disappear completely. It’s enough to acknowledge that a very good study on the relationship between immigration and serious crime leaves little room for the possibility that the more of the one, the more of the other.

Note, however, that the Light and Miller findings do not exclude this formulation completely. It’s possible that in some states an increase in illegal immigration is associated with a surfeit of serious crime. It’s possible even that for all states, but for a brief period, an increase in illegal immigration is quickly followed by a rise in serious crime. Because of these possibilities, the public perception and the startling results of this study may well be compatible. These would probably not be casually detected. Few regular observers, be they politicians, journalists, or public servants are likely to have a clear view of events in 51 separate entities sustained for twenty-four years. Intelligent, rigorous minded observers may be right about what they know and drastically wrong about what they have not studied through hard facts.

Light’s and Miller’s is a classically good article. It’s thorough without sacrificing detail; it offers a good quality and a useful review of the relevant sociological literature; it’s tightly reasoned. The estimations it reports on seem impeccable. I think Light and Miller is the standard against which all reports on the relationship between immigration and crime should now be assessed. Practically, this article should contribute to switching the burden of proof: Although they are less educated, poorer, and younger on average than the native-born population, immigrants appear to commit less serious crime than the latter. More surprisingly to some, illegal immigrants, who begin their American career by demonstrating their willingness to violate American law, do not appear to be prone to criminal violence.  But, as I have mentioned before, an illegal status is a strong incentive to keep one’s nose clean.

I am not proposing here that Light and Miller’s article should forever block the progress of more conventional ideas  to the effect that more immigration is associated with more crime. All it would take would be a single study of similar quality to overturn this remarkable study’s findings. In the meantime, it would be reasonable to shift the burden of proof  away from where it has implicitly stood: immigrants tend to be criminal.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 6]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 6); Immigrants, Crime and Incarceration: Another Mostly Local Cost and a Causal Tangle.

There exists a widespread impression, deliberately fed by some conservative media and sometimes by President Trump himself, to the effect that illegal immigrants are especially prone to crime, and to violent crime. By extension, by illogical implication, immigrants in general are tarred with the same brush.

Immigrant crime agitates for different reasons that are not always disentangled from one another. First, there is the general social disorganization that any crime causes and the worsening of the quality of life it entails. Second, mostly youthful immigrants could have the power to reverse the general decline in crime that accompanies the aging of American society. They might be the agent of a step backward for American society. Third, capturing, trying, and incarcerating anyone is very expensive, more expensive than schooling, for example. Immigrant crime in general is especially apt to disturb emotionally because it seems to involve a kind of crass ungratefulness: I let you into my living room, or you enter while I am not paying attention, and you show your appreciation by stealing the silverware, and worse.

Belief in the criminality of immigrants as a group is not necessarily the result of a kind of emotional prejudice. Immigrants are predominantly young, ill-educated, and poor, all known ingredients of criminal propensity in any context. (To my surprise, current immigrants are not predominantly male, although maleness is a strong factor of criminality.) So, if immigrants to the US are like just about every population of the same age, income, and education ever studied, they should exhibit a higher crime rate than the native-born population that is, on the average, better educated, more prosperous, and, especially, considerably older.

It’s difficult to figure out the basic truths about immigration and crime because gross miscounting by partisan journalists is common. For instance, in his 2018 article in Reason on a report based on 2009 figures, Alex Nowrasteh shows how easy it is to make horrendous but simple mistakes of enumeration: Counting single events of incarceration as if they were individual immigrants, for example, as if illegal immigrants could not be repeat offenders. (“Restrictionists Are Misleading You About Immigrant Crime Rates.” Reason, Feb. 1, 2018.)

I explicitly do not accuse the authors cited below of such miscounting.

In his 2006 article in Liberty, Cox showed that about 2.6 % of inmates in federal prison and an astonishing 12% of people incarcerated in local jails and prisons were illegal immigrants in 2002. That’s 14.6% of all persons then incarcerated in the US. The highest estimate of the number of illegal aliens I could locate for any year is 15 million. With that estimate, conservatively, incarcerated illegal aliens would be about 5% of the then US population of 293 million. Roughly, illegal aliens, according to Cox, were thus incarcerated in 2002 at almost three times the rate of their occurrence in the general population. This rate did not include incarcerations for merely being illegally present in the US (which must have been a small number since that was only a misdemeanor). Cox’s study is based on figures for only one year for the whole country.

At any rate, Cox’s incarceration figures concern mostly illegal aliens. It’s not clear whether illegal immigrants’ propensity to commit crimes is similar to the corresponding propensity of legal immigrants, nor if their crimes are similar. Legal and illegals may come from different countries and regions. Even if they come from the same places, they may issue from different classes in their societies of origin. Even if from the same places and same classes, they may constitute different samples of the populations of origin from the standpoint of motivation and thus, of personal psychology. It takes different virtues to arrange for legal immigration via whatever path, on the one hand, and to swim the Rio Grande, or coolly to overstay one’s visa, on the other. These different virtues could easily be associated with different levels of different criminal tendencies. Finally, legal and illegal immigrants have different incentives to break the law or not, the latter being in a good position to not draw attention to themselves. That’s at least until the sanctuary movement.

A study published by the libertarian Cato Institute in February 2015 examined criminal conviction data provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety. It found that native-born residents were much more likely to be convicted of a crime than immigrants in the country either legally or illegally. For all crimes together, the legal immigrants’ score was less than one third that of the native-born. The difference in the likelihood of being convicted of homicide, specifically, was very large between legal immigrants and the native-born. The former were 15 times less likely to be convicted of homicide. Even illegal immigrants were only 70% as likely as the native born to be convicted of homicide. (“Two charts demolish the notion that immigrants here illegally commit more crime,” Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post on-line accessed circa June 28 2018.)

Note that the Cato Institute study is for one state only and for only one year. Cox’s figures cited above are also for one year only but for the whole country.

It’s not obvious how one should relate these contradictory sets of findings to one another. (There are many more such studies. I chose two researchers on my side of the political fence that seemed to me to have worked with seriousness.) First, figures about comparatively rare events such as homicide are notoriously unstable. The corresponding homicide figures for 2004 or for 2014 might be very different. Moreover, both sets of figures, Cox’s and Cato Institute’s use the heterogeneous categories “legal immigrants” and “illegal aliens.” To generalize from their findings requires making the silent assumption that the composition of both is stable from year to year. This assumption is unwarranted. Nothing regulates the composition of illegal immigration and little insures that the composition of legal immigration will be similar from year to year. The varying numbers of refugees alone could sway the legal figures one way or the other.

Here is a realistic scenario: For a period of a few years, both immigration flows consist mostly of rural, mountain Mexicans from rural areas where crime is scarce. In a subsequent and contiguous period, a large flood is added, through both refugee legal immigration and through illegal immigration, of urban Central Americans (thus, of people from some of the highest crime areas of the world). Both the frequency and the nature of immigrant crime may change swiftly as a result  of this sudden (and realistic) change in  the composition of immigration, legal or illegal, or both. The composition of legal immigration may change drastically in a single year because of the influx of refugees from a single location hitherto unrepresented in the US. The composition of illegal immigration may also change suddenly because of a disaster in a region that the American federal government does not recognize as a legitimate source of refugee status. It’s hazardous to extrapolate from one period to any other period. Hence both Cox’s and Cato Institute’s findings may be correct but, at the extreme, each of them for one year only.

It’s also risky to extrapolate from one domestic location, for example, Texas, to another, for example, the whole United States. Here is one reason among others why it is so: The (innocent) rural mountain Mexicans I mention above are likely to move to the Central Valley of California and to similarly agricultural areas in Florida. Crime-prone Central Americans, on the other hand, may seek their fortune in the more familiar big cities anywhere, including, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. In this imaginary scenario, immigrant crime in Texas (Houston and Dallas, per chance) may be grossly unrepresentative of immigrant crime anywhere else in the US.

Finally, as Cox pointed out to me in a personal communication, the comparison category, “native-born” is itself heterogeneous with respect to crime. The rates for African-American  – most of whom are native-born – are several times as high as others’. Perhaps, the native-born would far better for incidence of crime if blacks were excluded from the comparison. I suspect this is true but I don’t know according to what theoretical principle, this exclusion should be made.

[Editor’s note: In case you missed it, here is Part 5]