Now, here’s Kenji Sekino and his thesis on crime economics, “When Contempt Causes Animosity: How criminals perceive criminal deterrence.”
What was your initial investigative question?
Initially I just wanted to look at how criminals respond to law enforcement. Econ teaches that people respond to incentives, and that they make decisions to maximize utility. I just wanted to look at how those concepts could be applied to analyzing how criminals make decisions to commit crimes in the face of law enforcement and punishment policies, because obviously that has an effect on the probabilities of success, failure, expected utilities, payoffs stuff like that.
Can you give us an applied example of this kind of theory?
So for example you have the concept of expected utility, which takes into account your probability of success and therefore also your probability of failure, the expected costs in carrying out the activity, and the expected benefits. Or perceived, you can use the word perceived instead of expected too. So say you have the decision to shoplift, you have your expected benefit which is whatever value you place on stealing, plus the intrinsic value which is the experience of stealing it, because some people just think that stealing stuff is fun. So you have that benefit, the value of what you’re stealing plus the experience of stealing, but you also have the possible cost of being caught and whatever that is, like maybe you pay a fine, maybe you actually go into custody. And then you have your probabilities and there’s no real way to put a real number on that because you never know exactly what the chances of you succeeding in the act is but you can develop some idea in your head like, “I think that there’s a 90% chance I’ll get away with stealing this,” so you decide to do it. Or maybe 90% isn’t high enough for you so you decide not to do it. It’s just using all those probabilities and costs and benefits in order to form a decision, at least that’s what you learn in microeconomic theory.
What inspired your interest for this topic?
So it’s actually long and contrived. I did summer research on the issue of crime, because I needed a summer job and applied for summer research because it would pay me well and it would allow me to stay around here and hang out with my friends. I decided on the topic of crime specifically because it’s just kind of an interest I’ve had for my entire life essentially, like I wasn’t terribly exposed to crime growing up but I had some what of a decent amount of exposure to crime growing up. I always liked crime movies and I liked to play Grand Theft Auto a lot. So just had this long interest in crime growing up and through my experience as an economics major I just wanted to apply the economic concepts to crime because I feel like there’s a pretty big economic side to it. Actually in my opinion it’s very largely an economics question, like you have the criminal who decides to execute crimes, which goes back to the microeconomic theory of expected utility that I mentioned, and then you have law enforcement which is trying to keep people from committing crimes and it’s all economic. Well it’s not all economic but it’s largely economic. Like why do people decide commit crime, it’s to maximize what they perceive to be their well being, like whether they desperately need money or they really think it’s fun or something like that. On the side of law enforcement they have a large incentive to mitigate crime because incarceration is costly, going through all the courts, prosecution, the actual incarceration. To keep one person incarcerated for an entire year it costs over a million dollars, to feed them, to put them up, to maintain facilities and a whole bunch of stuff. So there’s a large incentive to mitigate crime and there’s a large economic incentive for criminals to actual commit crimes, so on both sides it’s largely an economics question. As an econ major who already had this interest in crime, I just decided to tackle it from an economics perspective.
You mentioned you did summer research, could you tell us a little bit about that?
For my summer research project I looked at juvenile criminal incentives, because to me there’s a pretty large difference between a decision made by an adolescent and a decision made by an adult and it becomes even more different when you’re talking about carrying out illegal activity. Like when you look at it from a psychological or neurological or even sociological or even an economical perspective, a juvenile reacts to a different set of incentives than an adult does, so I just figured it would be interesting to look at the issue of juvenile crime specifically because at this point in my life I’m still kind of making the transition from an adolescent to an adult. Well I like to think I’m an adult but I’m still kind of growing up myself. It was just kind of an interesting topic to look at.
What kind of advice do you have for the upcoming thesis candidates?
My best advice would be to choose a topic that you find intrinsically satisfying, something you find a deep interest in. Don’t look for, or don’t try to do it on a topic that will get you employed after graduation because for me in instance, I never envisioned myself when I started doing all this crime research, which was about a year ago already, I never thought about going into it as a career, I just thought it was an interesting way to apply my econ knowledge, but now I figure it’s something I am going to be doing after graduation. I’ve already applied to grad school programs in criminal justice and have an interview next week for that. I just got back from one in Boston this past week actually. My advice would be just choose something you find intrinsically interesting, instead of something that will get you a job. Chances are if you pick something that is really interesting you’ll do really well in it and you’ll set yourself up better to get a job over if you just chose something that doesn’t really interest you but you thought would get you a job. If I was just looking out for my job interests I would have tried to do something more actuarial or something like that because I have a pretty strong math background as well, but if I did something accounting or actuary based, [my thesis] probably would have been pretty mediocre because I didn’t care about it and it wouldn’t have set me up as nearly as well as my crime project. Just choose something you actually find interesting verses what you think employers are going to find interesting.
Thanks for the insight and wisdom Kenji, come back next week for another thesis!