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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #73, August 1996. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

The costs of crime

by J.W. Mason


J.W. Mason was a reporter for LBO when he wrote this piece; he's now working somewhere in DC.


Suppose you could calculate the dollar value of the costs of crime - lost property, medical bills, missed work, pain and suffering - and figure out its total yearly cost to society? While "putting a dollar value on the suffering resulting from crime might seem cold and impersonal, such information is useful in the policy arena." For example, "is a patrol pattern that prevents a rape better than one that prevents three burglaries?" The answer, it turns out, is yes: 20.7 times better, in fact. Who would have guessed it?

The quotes and figure come from "Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look," a study by Mark Cohen, Ted Miller, and Brian Wiersema (CM&W) published with some fanfare by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) this spring. This study, building on earlier work by Miller and Cohen, adds up seven types of cost (lost productivity, medical care, mental health care, police and fire services, social services, property loss and damage, and lost quality of life) for a dozen types of crime. The bill, by their reckoning, comes to $447 billion a year.


What's wrong

It's worth reviewing why this is such a bad idea. Take CM&W's discussion of lost productivity. For nonfatal crimes, they not unreasonably estimate lost productivity from workers' compensation awards for similar types of injuries to workers of the same age and earnings as crime victims. But most lost productivity is due to fatal crime, and here, rather than base their estimate on the actual earnings of murder victims, they simply use average earnings for individuals of the same age and sex. This introduces a major upward bias in their calculations, since murder victims are generally poor.

In the absence of data on the earnings of murderees, one could correct for race, since nonwhites are both disproportionately poor and likely to be murdered. CM&W declined to do that math, because "society...might decide for equity reasons that differences in value of life estimates across individuals should not be used for policy analysis." Say what? If CM&W are prepared to fudge some numbers on the basis of some social preference, they might as well have saved everyone a lot of trouble and just made them up. Left unexplained, too, is why they do incorporate age and sex into their analysis; that is, why it's OK to value the life of a young person more than that of an old person and that of a man more than that of a woman. Murder victims tend to be young, male, poor, and nonwhite; it's interesting that CM&W incorporate t