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Education and Crime

There is a noticeable disparity in educational attainment between criminals and non-criminals.

In 2000, only 32 percent of U.S. prisoners completed high school, while 87 percent of the U.S. adult population between age 25 and 64 did so. Similarly, in 2001, only 56 percent of offenders in Canadian provinces completed high school education, while the corresponding rate for those of similar age was about 80 percent. From these observations, one may ask: Does more education cause people to commit fewer crimes?

Economists point to two possible mechanisms by which education reduces crime. First, more educational attainment leads to higher earnings on average and thus increases the opportunity cost of crime. (If I am already doing well from a legitimate job, why risk going to prison and losing this job?) Second, education may affect individuals’ personality traits associated with crime. Students may become more disciplined, patient, moral, and risk-averse over the years of formal schooling.

However, the selection problem is particularly worrisome here. Individuals with more years of schooling may be systematically different from individuals with less education in many other ways: family characteristics, economic background, intelligence, personality traits, etc. Simple regression analyses are usually inadequate to separate the causal effect of education on crime from the effects of these other differences. Further complicating the issue is potential reverse causality. Individuals who begin their criminal career at an early age are likely to leave school earlier than others. How can we disentangle the effect of education attainment on crime from the effect of crime on education attainment?

Fortunately, economists came up with clever empirical strategies which credibly isolate the causal effect of education on crime. Let’s look at some of the examples.

Education Attainment and Crime

Economists Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti used the change in compulsory schooling laws across U.S. states in order to estimate the causal effect of education on crime. As in the death penalty example, all 50 U.S. states have their own laws regarding compulsory schooling requirement, and many of them experienced a number of changes in compulsory schooling laws during the 20th century. (For example, the minimum legal school leaving age in Pennsylvania was 16 in 1934, 18 in 1944, and 17 in 1954.) These changes led to substantial increases in educational attainment by affected cohorts: Lochner and Moretti find that additional years of compulsory schooling can increase the rate of high school graduation by 3-5 percentage points.

Importantly, when a state increases the length of compulsory schooling, it affects every student in the state, regardless of their family background, intelligence and personality traits. To the extent that the decision to change compulsory schooling laws have little to do with underlying crime trends, the increase in education attainment caused by the change in compulsory schooling laws provide a credible identifying variation for the causal effect of schooling on crime. Comparing crime rates within states before and after the law changes, Lochner and Moretti find that an additional year of required schooling significantly lowered the state-level incarceration rate.

Similar findings are reported by Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie, and Sunčica Vujić. A 1972 schooling law reform increased the minimum school leaving age in England and Wales from 15 to 16. A comparison of schooling and criminal outcomes of individuals born before and after 1957 (those born in 1957 turned 16 in 1973) suggests that the reform decreased the share of individuals without qualifications by 11 percentage points and lowered the share of individuals with criminal convictions by 8 percentage points. Keeping youths in school for longer seems to be an effective crime-reducing strategy.

Using similar empirical strategies based on changes in compulsory schooling requirements, researchers also found that more education increases adult earnings, generates knowledge and productivity spillovers, improves health conditions and reduces mortality, encourages more civic participation, and increases the level of self-reported life satisfaction.

Incapacitation Effect of Schooling

Another strand of academic literature investigates a more immediate effect of schooling on youth crime. Every day, schools “incapacitate” millions of youths (who are more likely to be involved in crime than the general population) and prevent them from being on the streets, where a lot more criminal opportunities are available. Would crime increase if students were not required to be in school and allowed to be anywhere as they please?

Economists Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren tackled this question using detailed data on school calendar and juvenile crime from 29 U.S. cities. Obviously, those who skip school a lot are probably different from those who never skip school in many aspects, and their difference in offending rates would not tell us the causal effect of school attendance on crime. Jacob and Lefgren’s main intuition was that unexpected school closings cause all students to “skip” school, and thus can provide a credible identifying variation. They compared the level of crimes committed by youth on normal school days and days when schools were closed due to teacher in-service days (used for teachers’ professional development and training), and found that property crimes by juveniles fell by 14 percent on regular school days compared to when school was closed due to teacher in-service days.

Interestingly, they also found that juvenile violent crime was 28 percent higher on school days. But this finding may not be all that surprising. Every school day, millions of hotheaded youths are required to spend many hours right next to each other. Why shouldn’t we expect a number of verbal and physical altercations?


References:

  • Jacob, Brian A., and Lars Lefgren. “Are Idle Hands the Devil’s Workshop? Incapacitation, Concentration, and Juvenile Crime.” American Economic Review 93.5 (2003): 1560-1577.
  • Lochner, Lance, and Enrico Moretti. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-reports.” American Economic Review 94.1 (2004): 155-189.
  • Machin, Stephen, Olivier Marie, and Sunčica Vujić. “The Crime Reducing Effect of Education.” Economic Journal 121.552 (2011): 463-484.

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Economics of Crime

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