Frequently Asked Questions
Many social sciences, such as sociology and politics, have contributed significantly to the debate about criminal justice. The disciplines of psychology, and particularly economics, are less prominent in the debate. Commonly asked questions about this underrepresentation include:
- What can psychology bring to the criminal justice debate?
- What’s the difference between ‘evaluation’ of a project and an ‘economic valuation’ of it?
- Does economics really have anything to contribute to the criminal justice debate?
- What is criminal justice economics?
- Why do economists go on about deterrence?
Forensic psychology concerns itself with many aspects of criminal justice. Theories about personality disorder underpin the treatment of some of the most disturbed and dangerous offenders. Cognitive behaviour treatment programmes, derived from theories about impulsivity and many other aspects of behaviour, are widely employed within offender management services.
Regular ‘evaluations’ of project focus often on issues of process and effectiveness, such as ‘how was the project implemented?’ and ‘ what were the effects on staff and service user perceptions’. The research is frequently based on qualitative research methods, such as interviews and surveys. Some analysis of effectiveness uses quantitative methods to make estimates of a project’s impact on things like the proportion of offenders being reconvicted or the number of crimes prevented. ‘Economic evaluation’ is generally an extension of this kind of quantitative analysis. It uses methods such as project appraisal techniques, cost effectiveness analysis and cost-benefit analysis to explore the relationship between the improvements a project offers and the costs of its implementation.
Economics is about making the best possible use of resources. By elucidating options and the costs and benefits associated with them an economic analysis can help policy makers make comparisons between alternative means of meeting policy objectives. Although some of the early political economists discussed criminal justice, modern economics has not played much part in the debate about crime. Economists have proposed theories of offending behaviour but their work does not figure much in contemporary criminology or the wider public debate about crime.
Economic methodology is, in any event, applied implicitly by means of the requirement that government departments wishing to commit public resources have to produce a ‘project appraisal’ or ‘business case’ to justify a new policy or practice. But economics can do much more than support project appraisal and evaluation. Offending decisions can be explored using economics, since individuals considering offending have to balance the likely gains and losses associated with crime and may take account of the likely responses of law enforcement agencies when making their own decisions.
We think of criminal justice economics being similar to health economics, transport economics or environmental economics. It is the application of a variety of methods from mainstream economics to the distinctive issues raised by criminal justice. This area of application is potentially very wide since criminal justice is a complex field to which significant amounts of public resources are devoted.
From an economic perspective nothing can be done to prevent crimes that have already occurred. But deterring crimes that might happen in the future can save many costs associated with crime, such as the impact on victims and the criminal justice system. So the natural focus is on using sentencing decisions to ‘send a message’ to potential offenders in an effort to persuade them to desist and thereby reduce these future costs. The deterrence message may be aimed both at a defendant in front of the court and at the wider public. In addition to deterrence economists sometimes take account of incapacitation effects since, like deterrence effects, they may be an effective method of preventing crime in the future. Holding criminal suspects in prison prior to trial, for example, is a practice aimed at crime prevention.