Understanding Crime and Punishment Through the Lens of Economics

Interview with Emergent Ventures Grant Recipient Jennifer Doleac

Jennifer Doleac, associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University and nonresident fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, just joined the third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients. Below, she shares some of what inspired her proposal, how it fits in with her broader work, and what she hopes to accomplish.

The responses below have been lightly edited to preserve the original conversational tone of the interview.

Tyler Cowen described your EV grant as intended “to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.” Is this a podcast you already have and would like to expand, or are you just starting?

This will be a new podcast, scheduled to launch in April. Readers can visit probablecausation.com for more information and to subscribe. They can also follow the show on Twitter: @ProbCausation.

Can you walk us through what a typical episode might look like? What kind of guests, if any, would you bring on, and who is the audience for this kind of product?

Each episode will last about an hour, and will feature an in-depth interview with a fellow academic researcher about their work. We’ll typically focus on a particular crime-related study, talking about how they answered the questions they were interested in, and how the results fit into the broader literature. We’ll discuss policy takeaways as well as the research frontier—that is, what big questions will they and their colleagues be trying to answer next?

Guests will be economists and other empirical researchers who are focused on measuring the causal effects of interventions related to crime and criminal justice policy. I look forward to including political scientists, sociologists, social psychologists, and others in the mix as well.

The target audience is anyone who’s interested in how to reduce crime and make our criminal justice system more fair and effective. It is an exciting time to be studying this topic—there are lots of new data available, and practitioners and policymakers are hungry for research evidence that can guide their efforts to improve criminal justice policy. My main goal with this podcast is to make top-notch research in this area more accessible to folks outside the ivory tower. 

What about your field made you think, “this is what I have to do”? Was there a “Eureka!” moment where you realized there was a gap you could fill, or is this an idea you’ve been kicking around for a while?

One of the reasons I love studying criminal justice policy is that our society is at a point where nearly everyone agrees that our current criminal justice system isn’t working. There is also broad consensus that we should make our crime-related policies more evidence based. There’s no Right or Left in terms of criminal justice policies the way there is in other policy areas. This provides a tremendous opportunity to make meaningful progress, and I think that researchers like myself have an obligation to do whatever we can to assist in that process.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several years translating academic work for non-academic audiences—giving policy talks, writing columns and op-eds for Brookings and other outlets, and tweeting about crime-related research. That’s been fun and (I think) productive, but I want to be able to get more research out into the world, faster. Through bi-weekly conversations with other academics, I hope that I can cover a lot more ground and reach a broader audience.

As an economics professor, how did you first get interested in studying crime and discrimination? What does economics (as a toolkit or an analytical approach) bring to your work on the subject?

Economics is the study of how to allocate scarce resources, and economists are interested in how people respond to incentives. Both of these issues are front and center when it comes to designing a fair and effective criminal justice system. A lot of our well-meaning policies don’t work as well as we’d hoped, because humans adapt to new rules or incentives by changing their behavior in ways that can be pretty inconvenient for policymakers.

Because economists want to understand how individuals respond to policy changes, our discipline has developed an amazing empirical toolkit that allows us to measure causal effects. That is, we’re extremely focused on—some would say obsessed with—distinguishing correlation from causation, in order to pin down what change was caused by a particular program or policy. To do this, we run field experiments or find natural experiments.

This is a big part of the fun of doing economics research—it often requires digging into institutional details and local history to find strange quirks in how programs were rolled out. In the podcast, I’ll talk with my guests about the creative ways they found to measure the causal effect of whatever they were studying.

I personally enjoy studying crime and criminal justice policy because there is simply so much work to do. Our criminal justice system is, frankly, a mess. Incentives are misaligned all over the place, and a lot of our policies are far from efficient. Economists have a lot to contribute in this space, and the results are important—getting criminal justice policy right can literally be a matter of life or death.

Can you paint a picture of what success in this project looks like to you? If this podcast accomplishes all you hope it will, how will the world be different by the time you’re done?

I have two goals with this podcast. First and foremost, I want to make crime-related research more accessible to non-academics. Getting the amazing work that’s being done out into the world so that it can make our system more fair and effective is my main goal. So, I hope that the research we discuss on the show becomes an integral part of the conversations about criminal justice reform.

Second, I hope that by showcasing what economists work on and the cool topics we study, the show inspires some young people who are interested in criminal justice reform to study economics. The economics toolkit is invaluable for understanding the criminal justice system and making it work better. I hope that becomes clear to more people in the months and years ahead.