What does economics have to with our criminal justice system? Well, quite a bit, according to economist, Dr. Sarah Estelle. Listen in for Dr. Estelle’s enlightening perspective on how her field of economics intersects with our justice system—we think you’ll find this a fascinating discussion.

More About Our Guest

Portrait of Sarah Estelle

Dr. Sarah Estelle is an associate professor of economics at Hope College. She extends the theories and empirical techniques of microeconomics to questions located along the "imperialist" frontier of economic research. She is interested in public policy, especially criminal justice reform, education choices, risky health behaviors and parents' investments in children.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. We're here with our guest today, Dr Sarah Estelle who's Professor of Economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan and does a whole host of things outside the university. Among those are: she's a research fellow at the Activa Institute. She's Associate Editor of Journal of Markets and Morality. She's affiliated with the American Economic Association, the Association of Christian Economists, committee on the status of women in the economics profession and a list that could go on for some for additional length, but her specialty, one of the areas of specialty is on the intersection of economics and criminal justice.

So I have a hunch that we're going to get some things that we hadn't thought about before and maybe get some of our categories rearranged in this conversation because I don't think we look at criminal justice much from the perspective of an economist. So Sarah, welcome. Really glad to have you with us and appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.

Sarah Estelle: Thanks for having me.

Scott Rae: So you're trained as an economist and I take it you do a lot of the traditional things that economists do, but tell our listeners a bit how you got interested in criminal justice and the intersection of your discipline and criminal justice.

Sarah Estelle: Well, first of all, my understanding of economics is that as a social science, it's a study of human behavior and there are so many interesting human behaviors involved in the commission of crime policies related to reducing crime, rehabilitation and the like, that I wanted to bring an economic lens to those difficult questions. The real impetus for my involvement in this space, which actually is a pretty large area within economic research and the economics literature, was frankly the availability of data. So I learned along with my coauthor on a project I'm sure I'll get to talk with you all about, that there was a data set available from the State of Michigan and as an empirical economist, access to data about interesting human behavior, just piqued my curiosity and I didn't even know what was in the data at first. I just knew it was on individual incarcerated people in the State of Michigan and I thought, "Wow, there must be some interesting questions that we could ask and hopefully answer with that data."

And I think it's important for our economists to be involved in this space because of the complexity of the relationship of policy and human behavior and kind of strategic responses that can flow from changes in policy. So I was mostly just curious.

Scott Rae: One of the great things about being an academic is you get to follow those areas of your curiosity, but this one has lots of real life practical import that's really important in this area. Now you've got lots of empirical expertise and you do a lot of work with the data on this. Why is it important for Christians to be concerned about this empirical aspect?

Sarah Estelle: I think the short answer is because it is so complex that these factors that feed into whether an individual commits a crime, whether an incarcerated individual goes on after they're released to commit more crime, that there are so many intricacies there, that we can't simply rely on our gut hunch all the time. Even a more fleshed out theory of criminal behavior isn't always going to be accurately predictive. Certainly even our good intentions as Christians towards former offenders, won't always pan out in the way that we expect. So a basic economic literacy is helpful I think for getting at a few things.

First of all, bringing a perspective to criminal justice policy in particular, that takes a full assessment of costs and benefits associated with that policy. So we don't just think about public budgets, right? It's expensive to incarcerate people and make our decisions based on that.

Or incarceration reduces an offender's freedom and we're going to just kind of knee jerk reaction to that. We want to account for all of those things. And I think economics is well suited for a kind of a more holistic understanding of the costs and benefits. I think in terms of our methodology to, one other thing is that we're almost obsessed as economists with causal relationships, we're not content with just looking at correlations or associations. We really want to understand, if this policy changes, what does that cause? Not just what it said associated with, but we're just very careful in that way. So if we really care about incarcerated individuals, their families, their communities, we probably want to know that causal relationship.

Scott Rae: Okay, that's good for the, for those who are listening, who are not social scientists or to remember that just because two things are correlated doesn't mean that one causes the other.

So criminal justice reform has always been an issue that's been on the radar. We've been talking about this for most of my lifetime and it's always a hot issue. Sometimes it's hotter than others, but what makes the discussion of it different today than it's been in the past?

Sarah Estelle: Yeah. Well, I think for the fact that it's coming to the [inaudible 00:05:58], that the incarceration rate in the United States is just sky high. It's the greatest in the world. Per 100,000 population in the United States, it's something like 655 people are incarcerated. That's higher per capita than Russia and China and far beyond our intellectual and legal forebearers in the United Kingdom, right? That's where we got our ideas about law and legislation. We're just way outpacing them and there's a question as to why that is. And I think that should raise some concern or some questions.

I think what's really changed is the tone of the conversation and I think in practical terms, this changes things to, where when I think back to the 1990s and a hopeful politician running for office would probably at least at one point stand at a lectern and kind of pound their fist a little bit and say, "I'm going to be tough on crime." Right? They would really make this commitment to be universally tough on crime. And these days for the last few years in particular, oddly in this political moment, we have almost this bi-partisan understanding that we actually need to be smart about justice and understand the various consequences of criminal justice, not just the effects of our sentencing policy on recidivism, but what does it mean for families and communities? What does it mean for the ability of former offenders to return as productive citizens?

I think that's a good thing, to think more broadly about the ramifications and I think that is somewhat new.

Scott Rae: Okay, so, let's be a little more specific here. What exactly are the contributions that you feel like economics is making to the whole area of criminal justice reform? I mean, it's one thing to talk about the costs, and that's sort of obvious; the costs of keeping people incarcerated, but there's a lot more to it than that. So tell us a little bit about how economics factors in to the public policy decisions that should be made, on justice reform.

Sarah Estelle: Well one way, even before thinking about the empirics is just a theoretical framework. Over centuries, there's been a debate about how to even understand criminal activity. Where does that come from? I mean, at various points in history, people have even felt people skulls, right? To feel these lumps and bumps and determine whether they're of a criminogenic type, right? Maybe some people are just in their essence, they're a criminal and other people don't commit because they're not criminals. And I think today we would think that was kind of tautological; that's not really helpful to think of, "Crimes are committed by criminals." We want to understand what are the factors that contribute there.

And so one thing that economics has to offer, thanks to Gary Becker, particularly in the 1960s is -

Scott Rae: Gary Becker's the -

Sarah Estelle: University of Chicago.

Scott Rae: Economist.

Sarah Estelle: Yes. Nobel Laureate, a wonderful social scientist, that took the real work horses of economics in terms of our toolkit and applied it to so many interesting human behaviors: marriage, fertility, education choices, and criminal activity.

Scott Rae: So would this be oversimplifying to say that he was the precursor of Freakonomics?

Sarah Estelle: Well, it's a little bit different, but he was accused of being an economic imperialist, which has a very negative connotation. But when people apply it to me, if I can kind of reframe that and say, "If you mean like Gary Becker, I would happily take that as a compliment." Because if economics has something of value to say about human behavior and it's a human behavior, we care about: marriage, fertility, education, criminal justice; I want to be involved in that discussion. So if that makes me a, "Imperialist" in the line of Gary Becker, I'm all about that.

But here, what he did is provide us a framework for understanding that it's not just criminal types and non-criminal types. I think this should be particularly appealing to Christians, who understand that we all have proclivity towards sin and we all face temptation or as [inaudible] said, "The line between good and evil runs through each one of our hearts," that Becker gives us a model that allows us to understand criminal activity as if it's the result of some calculation of costs and benefits.

Now, that phrase, "As if," is important, because we're not saying that someone who drives drunk is sitting down before they do so, and calculating these things, adding up numbers in two different columns and deciding whether to do that. But it works well for us, this model because it's as if they do, if we understand that perhaps increasing the cost of being a caught after drunk driving, diminishes that activity. Or if the benefit of some theft increases. So if you imagine kind of a brass ring versus a diamond ring and you think, "Oh, well you can be arrested for stealing either, but it might be worth it for a diamond ring. Other things held constant. Then a brass ring."

This is what the Rational Choice Model of Gary Becker allows us to understand is that it's not just "I'm a criminogenic type, therefore I'll commit a crime." But that these factors as they change, can affect behavior. I think one of the most, I don't know, real world issues this addresses then is, why do we see in low income neighborhoods or communities or among low income families, why do we see more criminal activity in these settings? And one is that: the opportunity cost of getting caught and incarcerated is lower.

Scott Rae: Explain what you mean by, "Opportunity cost."

Sarah Estelle: So opportunity costs is this idea of: what are you sacrificing? And I think the human person really longs for certain types of freedom and so we're all sacrificing that, but what is it that you enjoy in your freedom? For those of us who have strong family and community ties, where we have jobs that we find fulfilling and we get a reasonable paycheck, being incarcerated sounds much worse than when you're scraping to get by and you don't have community ties and you don't have a strong family or you don't have a job that's paying the bills.

Scott Rae: So there's not as much at stake.

Sarah Estelle: Not as much as there's not as much as stake and so the sacrifice not being as great, that balance and considering of costs and benefits, the cost of criminal activity looks less intense.

Scott Rae: Because the person calculates that they have less to lose, if the worst case scenario happens and they get caught and go to jail, they have less to lose.

Sarah Estelle: Absolutely. So it's not that low income people and/or criminals are of a particular type genetically or in terms of the shape of their head, right? It's that the factors that are at play are of a different magnitude for them.

Scott Rae: And you're suggesting that some, maybe not all, but some people actually make a rational choice to commit crimes?

Sarah Estelle: And I think that's more likely in cases of, let's say, my research looks in part at retail fraud, which is high priced or repeated shoplifting. I think actual rational choice probably happens more with those sorts of behaviors. That can be addictive behavior for some people. But in a lot of cases it's, "Can I get away with getting some cash in my pocket?" As opposed to where substance abuse is involved with drunk driving and the like. But what's kind of neat about the Rational Choice Model is it still works pretty well, even when the person's not literally making these calculations.

Scott Rae: So even if the person is somewhat impaired through drugs or alcohol, it's still sort of works?

Sarah Estelle: So let's think of something that we do on a routine basis without really calculating it. I live in Michigan, our highways are pretty wide open and we've got a high speed limit, I think it's 70 miles per hour, but when we crossed the border into Ohio, especially on the turnpike, I pay a really close attention because there are police cars every so often. And even though I'm not sitting there thinking, "Well, what's the likely cost of a ticket if I get one?" I just know that it's higher than in Michigan. The likelihood of getting caught is higher, and so I just watch my speedometer more closely. And I don't spent a lot of time calculating that. Really until today, I hadn't thought of that as an example because it's so natural to what we do. So the model would predict that kind of behavior. It gives us accurate predictions without people actually having to think like the model.

Scott Rae: So would you say that also would apply to what you [inaudible] to as recidivism? Which is that which is... Well, I'll let you define what you mean by that.

Sarah Estelle: Recidivism is just, committing future offenses. So we often talk about former offenders or incarcerated people when they reenter society, when they come back to the community, will they commit future crimes? And we want to understand, in particular in my research, I'm interested in how the severity of a sentence, the length of a sentence or where you serve that sentence, for example, how does that affect the likelihood that more crimes will be committed in the future? I think oftentimes we have kind of a gut response that harsher sentences are going to reduce recidivism or future crimes because longer sentences are tough and you want to, now especially, avoid that. But actually it's a little more complicated than that. In terms of the theory. This is why we need to go to the data and understand whether in longer sentences do routinely reduce recidivism. In some cases we find it doesn't.

Scott Rae: That's that sounds really counterintuitive to say because we always think that a harsher sentence is a stronger deterrent. But you're saying sometimes that's not true?

Sarah Estelle: Right.

Scott Rae: How does that work?

Sarah Estelle: So there are a few concepts that I think are helpful. One is general deterrence. Now this works intuitively. If it is announced that, let's be extreme, shoplifting results in the death penalty. There's a general deterrent effect. People who never even thought about shoplifting or would be marginally enticed by shoplifting, "I'm not shoplifting," right? It's a general deterrence, you don't actually have to engage in the criminal activity for it to affect your behavior. I want to even avoid the appearance of shoplifting. And so that's intuitive. Incapacitation is another way that incarceration operates, which is, for most crimes, if you put someone in jail or prison, they can't do the crime mechanically. I'm not able to drive drunk when I'm sitting in a prison cell. So those are intuitive.

What criminologists call, "Specific deterrence," though is a little more complicated. We tend to think, "Okay, if prison is supposed to be about teaching someone a lesson or even better in the best case scenario rehabilitation, then that experience should reduce recidivism," but we have concerns and I think they're well-placed concerns that for some people, harsher sentences, more time in prison, could actually increase their criminal human capital. So their skills at committing crimes. Or their criminal network, right? You get to know people in prison that can facilitate getting away with something, or teach you how to avoid getting caught or simply just change your value functions and kind of how you think about these things.

We hear this more, I think, more often than not because it's more intuitive here, with juvenile offenders. When you think about putting a young person into a jail as opposed to a home-based rehabilitation, you might say, "Does that have the potential of the criminogenic effect?" Making them into a criminal, if you could do that, to make them a criminal in their future years. But even more, the Rational Choice Model would suggest to us, "Okay, criminal activity is less likely the more community ties you have, the more fulfilling and well-paying your job is. If being in jail or prison longer, weakens those ties again, that's a way that longer jail sentences could result in more criminal activity in the future."

Scott Rae: How does your rational choice model, I mean basically what we've described, our nonviolent crime as examples. How does that impact how we ought to view violent crime? Is it any different?

Sarah Estelle: Oh, that's a really good question. One nice thing about the Rational Choice Model is it's flexible to including even things that are difficult to quantify. So if I was modeling violent activity, I would start with the same basic framework of considering this full range of consequences, but I might have to be even more attentive to psychological costs and benefits. It's hard to think of psychological benefits to committing crime, but clearly for some people there are some, right? Trying to, again, in nonviolent terms for some people ripping off a business, in some way feels good. Getting ahead or getting over on someone in some very broken ways.

Scott Rae: I can see people thinking that they're reversing some injustice by doing that or even taking a revenge on someone. And I think there are other parts of the world where the revenge value is much higher than it is in some parts of the West.

Sarah Estelle: I think that's right. And so with violent crime, where another human being is involved, I think we'd want to pay particular attention to that piece, because I think there's something more psychologically troubling or there should be, to a violent offense. And so the particulars of how an economist would employ the model would be different, but I still think the basic framework pans out pretty well.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now you've done a lot of research on sentencing guidelines, sort of mandatory sentencing requirements for judges and juries and you've got a lot of things that you're suggesting ought to change about mandatory sentencing and sentencing requirements. What have you concluded about these and what changes would you recommend?

Sarah Estelle: So the data that my coauthor David Phillips at Notre Dame and I have had access to and use in this project are from about a 10 year period in the State of Michigan where sentencing guidelines were in effect, and they are today even. And we have access to data on what's known as Operating While Intoxicated in Michigan, third degree, which means repeated drunk driving and retail fraud, high priced or repeated shoplifting.

And what we were curious about is, what are the effects of these sentencing guidelines in the strictness or the severity of the sentencing guidelines? Because this is a real tool that policymakers do use. Our legislature here in Michigan can tweak the cutoffs that determine whether someone is bound to have a minimum sentence of six months or a year. And so we wanted to understand that the effect of that cause and effect relationship, but not just for felonies in general, but as it might differ for different crimes and even different criminal or offender types.

So what we found was that longer sentences reduced recidivism for retail fraud offenders, and this is particularly true for young male offenders in the Detroit Metro region. So we were able to kind of drill down and see particularly strong negative, well good, I think that's beneficial, but negative in the sense of increase the sentence in recidivism goes down; so an inverse relationship mathematically speaking. But what's interesting is when we look at the OWI third offense, that repeat drunk driving, there's no discernible effect. Longer sentences don't affect recidivism, which in some ways is intuitive. Or it's consistent with an understanding that drug driving probably often results from substance abuse, addictive behaviors. It's less coolly calculated than probably a lot of retail fraud offenses. And probably locking someone up and cutting off access to alcohol is not an answer to when they come out and have access to the same stressors and same issues in their life, and access to alcohol once again.

And so I guess my policy kind of implication that I would draw from this is: we don't want to be tough on crime across the board in the sense of just let's ramp up everyone's sentence, and we certainly don't want to just lock everyone up and throw away the key. In fact, 90% of felony offenders will reenter society. This is why we have to be thoughtful about recidivism. I mean, what's going to happen in the future? We can't incapacitate them forever and I don't think we want to, right? These are human people with real value. And so I think what our research suggests is, if we're going to be smart about justice, we need to think carefully about different people and also different categories of crime and what's the best way to rehabilitate people?

Scott Rae: So in some cases you've found that longer sentences actually increased the recidivism rate. In others, they decrease it. And in most of those cases, what makes the difference is that the person just doesn't normally have that capacity to engage in the kind of rational choice that would make the consequences clear.

Sarah Estelle: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Am I getting that right?

Sarah Estelle: I think there is one dimension of this that is: how much does the experience of incarceration, how large of a factor is that in the decisions of committing future crimes? So, prison is not pleasant. In fact, as a side note, I like to share this. A former offender once told me that one of the hardest things about prison for him was there was no color. For the years he was in prison, you're surrounded just by drabness and I think important for Christians to keep in mind when we think of human dignity, right? It's just in these basic ways, kind of the inhumanity of that, right? And so people are going to have negative experiences with incarceration, but how much does that influence your choice when for someone who has a substance abuse issue, when there are these other issues that are chemical that are maybe mental health related, maybe really deep seated spiritual issues. It's not that that prison experience doesn't factor in. It's just a small drop in the bucket of a lot of issues and the more effective rehabilitation would require digging into those particular family or mental health or spiritual issues.

I think that's one point of promise in the recent discussion and the adoption of the First Step Act this Fall, that there is a little bit more attention to effective rehabilitation within an incarceration situation.

Scott Rae: I know one of the things you recommend is that people who are going to jail be incarcerated in a facility that's closer to their community rather than farther away, so that they can continue those community ties and hopefully contribute to less recidivism once they get out.

Sarah Estelle: Right. That's one of the provisions of the First Step Act. I think it was November. This is a federal law, both houses supported it. President Trump signed it into law. Unfortunately in some sense it only affects 10% of the incarcerated population because it is a federal law, but it really sets a tone and in many ways, but in this way, to suggest that wherever possible, where there is a bed in a facility that is of the appropriate security, that people be placed within 500 miles of their community. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations, especially Christian ministries that are working hard to keep kids in contact with incarcerated parents and this just makes it that much easier. You're talking about maybe potentially a bus ride as opposed to a flight, it's an in-person visit for a day as opposed to a phone call. I know all sorts of things have potential unintended consequences, that's kind of an economic perspective that we should bring to mind frequently, but that seems to me a clear win. That makes sense, where possible to allow for that relationship.

Now, if there's some trouble there that makes it not healthy for children to be in contact, that's still an option too, but at least it reduces the costs, again, we love to talk that way and economics, the hurdle that is there to overcome if a child and a parent really do need to maintain that connection.

Scott Rae: Two final questions. Sarah. Given your expertise, what are you encouraged about in terms of criminal justice reform?

Sarah Estelle: I am encouraged by the conversation. As I said, I think this is almost unique for this polarized time, that there is an issue that so many people can come together over. A handful of years ago, President Obama gave a speech to the NAACP where he complimented a Newt Gingrich and the so called Koch brothers as well as his attorneys general. He just listed people on both sides of the aisle and advocates and politicians and people involved in these, these movements, all kind of wanting to have this conversation on smart justice. And I think that's something special. When we understand that we can set ideology aside and we can come together over an important topic, I'm very encouraged by that. I'm encouraged by a lot of the provisions in the First Step Act things as to me, simple and obvious as it outlaws putting restraints on pregnant women who are incarcerated. I think that's important. I think even in the particulars of that it's important in terms of the health and dignity of those women. But even in the way we think about incarcerated people, right? Not to chain, women that are pregnant, I think sends an important message to Americans that these are people who are incarcerated.

But thinking carefully as well within the First Step Act, there are provisions for this recidivism reduction programming, and the language is evidence based. So there's a desire, not just to have good intentions toward rehabilitation, but the law really calls on engaging in the sorts of research that allow us to make good decisions about rehabilitation.

Scott Rae: One final question. What can Christian listeners, who will be listening to this do to make a positive impact related to criminal justice reform?

Sarah Estelle: I would say in the whole vein of criminal justice, my biggest suggestion would be to think locally. Get involved in private and nonprofit and interpersonal activities that engage with the formerly incarcerated. If you could be a mentor to someone, that's wonderful. If you can be a friend to someone, that can be an enormous help. There are a number of organizations that work on employment training on education, on maintaining those relationships between kids and their incarcerated parents. We even have evidence, of things as simple as providing, I mean simple to us, but really important for returning citizens, bus passes that can be provided to allow someone to get to work for a while. Funds for removing visible tattoos. If you think about the effect of a tattoo on the face for someone who is trying to start afresh and go into the workplace.

So there are these kind of smaller things that we can do. And small doesn't mean inconsequential. In fact, oftentimes local needs were effective than the big sweeping things. Two other things I would say. Let's reflect on how we think about the human person, incarcerated individuals being made in the image of God and how that's reflected in our attitudes and how we're involved.

And then finally, how does that reflect in our language? It can be hard, and I hope I've modeled it okay in this podcast, but I think the way we use language really matters. So I try to use language like, "Former offender," as quickly as possible; it's nice to move from former offender to neighbor to friend. Those are meaningful and important experiences in someone's life, but the sooner we can see that and really act according to our understanding that we've all fallen short in the glory of God, the better for all of us.

Scott Rae: I think that's a good place to stop, on that theological note, and so Sarah, I so appreciate the insight that you bring to this, not only as an economist, but how you frame it biblically and theologically. And so I see this as an outgrowth not only of your discipline as an economist, but also an outgrowth of your Christian worldview and the importance of just how seriously you take your faith.

Sarah Estelle: Well it's a pleasure to answer such wonderful questions and look forward to talking to you again.

Scott Rae: Thank you. This has been incredibly insightful and we'll definitely have to do another installment of this. So thank you so much for coming on Sarah.

Sarah Estelle: Thank you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr Sarah Estelle, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and tell a friend. And hey, thanks so much for listening and remember: think biblically about everything.