NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fighting Crime At The Expense of Justice

February 22, 2002

In the United States crime rates differ across race and gender groups. Because of this, society faces a serious trade-off between important societal values -- namely, society could lower the crime rate and also lower the overall probability of convicting an innocent person by making conviction easier for members of the high-crime group and more difficult for members of the low-crime group.

When society is divided into two groups with different actual or perceived crime rates, maintaining a low crime rate, minimizing the total number of innocent individuals convicted of a crime and keeping the probability of wrongly convicting an innocent individual equal across groups are incompatible social goals. For example, researchers have found:

  • Innocent black Americans are five times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime than innocent white Americans.
  • Yet, eliminating all racial inequality in the probability of an innocent being convicted would result in 1,903 additional murders per year.
  • Similarly, gender equality would cost 1,400 lives per year.

With this in mind, researchers have examined how a society is likely to use an individual's group to help determine guilt or innocence. Even members of the same group form prior opinions of the propensity to commit crimes on the basis of an individual's race or gender. Likewise, neither race nor gender is hidden from police, judges and juries.

The only solution is to mitigate the trade-off that generates these differences, say experts. Lowering the crime rate of the high-crime group would help achieve all three social objectives simultaneously. Thus programs designed to improve economic opportunities and lower crime rates of high-crime groups might be justified on efficiency grounds.

Source: Amy Farmer and Dek Terrell, "Crime Versus Justice: Is There A Trade-Off?," Journal of Law and Economics, Part I, October 2001.

For SSRN abstract


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