How can economists combat crime?


Can data analysis combat organised crime?

“Organised crime groups are structured criminal organisations that engage in illegal activities for financial gain,” explains Magdalena. This typically makes them more dangerous and harder to tackle than individual criminals working alone. “Organised crime groups have extensive networks and may often be involved in serious crimes, such as drug dealing, money laundering and cyber crime.”

Magdalena uses economic methods to understand how organised crime groups operate and how police can prevent them. “I use quantitative methods, such as econometric models and network analyses, to analyse numerical data in a structured and statistical manner,” she explains. “For example, I quantified the effects of mass arrests of gang members in Barcelona, Spain, on future criminal activity.” Magdalena found that, following these mass arrests, not only were the arrested criminals less likely to commit further crimes, but that crime rates also fell among their peers who were not arrested. “It seems that mass gang arrests have spillover effects that indirectly contribute to a further reduction in crime,” she says. “However, I also found that some key gang members were not arrested, indicating that the policy could have been designed better to achieve an even larger crime reduction.”

Getting the full picture

The study of crime has traditionally taken place through a sociology lens to understand the social, societal and human factors that make crime more or less likely. While crucially important for understanding crime, sociological approaches sometimes miss an important element – quantifying incentives. The economic situation of an individual or community can make a big difference to the likelihood of crimes being committed. For instance, a recession may lead to a lack of job opportunities, which in turn may cause some people to feel that crime is their best option for securing an income. If caught, having a criminal record can then make it even harder for that person to get a job, causing them to return to crime. Understanding how much these factors matter is crucial for policy design.

However, economic factors do not exist in isolation. Many social factors, such as peer influence, education level and mental health support, can also contribute to an individual’s decision to commit crimes. This highlights the importance of combining the quantitative approaches of economics with the typically more qualitative approaches of sociology and criminology. “By combining economics, criminology and sociology, we can better understand why crimes happen and find smarter ways to prevent them,” explains Tom. “This mix of ideas helps us see how society works, why people do what they do, and how different social and economic factors contribute to crime.”

The work of crime economists, such as Tom and Magdalena, is crucial for reducing crime, improving policing, and building a safer society for everyone.

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