I write this from Australia, where I am chairing a table on crime in Latin America as part of the GDN Eighth Annual Conference. According to economic theory, criminals respond to the same incentives as any other worker, comparing possible profits against the risk of being punished. In the study that Rodrigo Soares, a professor from the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, will present in Brisbane, he argues that the excess of violence in Latin America is due to the exaggerated disparity of income, inadequate size of the police force and low incarceration rates. He believes that the way to reduce crime is to put more people in prison. Could that be right?
First, let us look at the numbers. In 2004, Brazil’s homicide rate of 27 per 100,000 inhabitants was around 30 or 40 times higher than that of the UK, France, Germany, Japan and Egypt. This was lower than 2003, mainly thanks to that year’s policy of disarmament. For Brazilians aged 15 to 24, the homicide rate reached 52 per 100,000 – 100 times higher than the rates for Austria and Japan. Taking the total population, the percentage of victims that were male was 92%, whilst for the 15 to 24 age bracket, that figure rose to 97%. Brazil’s black population accounted for 74% more victims than its white population, with this figure reaching 83% for the 15 to 24 age bracket.
I buy the theory that we are all capable of committing crimes and that we all respond to incentives. But calculations using the economic theory fail to explain the most important aspect of this problem. Why do we respond to incentives in different ways? Why do homicides principally occur among young adults? Why are female victims rare? Why are black victims more common?
The vast majority of Brazil’s prison population consists of the poor. This makes us suspect that the probability of being incarcerated is higher for poor people. If the economic calculation is correct, crime pays for the poor, because when one is unemployed, any income is valuable. So, the economist may think, even within the poor, a large percentage of criminals are never caught. Issue 61 of Estudos Avançados (Advanced Studies) magazine cites research showing that, for a given year, only 4.6% of homicide cases in São Paulo had known and registered motives and suspects. Whilst 92% of homicide cases in Rio de Janeiro were returned by the prosecution to the police due to lack of evidence.
On the other hand, if the chances of going to prison are low, the possibility of dying for young criminals is very high. But it seems that even the worst of sentences fail to reduce crime. Perhaps criminals are less worried about those risks than the, more likely, possibility of death. It could be that this is a short-sighted view of the future and that, this being the case, the economic model is not applicable.
The rise of violence in Brazil is a consequence of organized crime stemming from the narcotics trade. Prison is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it acts as a deterrent, but on the other, it serves as a finishing school for criminals. There is evidence of the adverse effects of incarceration. Brazilian prisons create criminal organizations, such as the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital) and the Terceiro Comando (Third Command).
The time has come to modernize crime fighting techniques. First time offenders should remain in the general population but with electronic surveillance tags. In Buenos Aires, this method seems to have reduced the likelihood of repeat offences, which is more common among those who serve their sentence behind bars.
Programs that reduce criminality act on several fronts and do not resort to building more prisons. In Bogotá, the homicide rate, which reached 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993, fell to 21 in 2004 thanks to an integrated health program, the renovation of public areas, libraries with internet access in or neighborhoods and a fine tuning of the legal system. It is better to prevent than to cure.