May 28, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 17

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    1998 QUANTRELL AWARD: Steven Levitt

    Assistant Professor in Economics

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Students in Steven Levitt's classes don't just listen to him talk about crime -- some witness it themselves from a squad car.

    To help students in the College become better judges of material for his Economics of Crime class, Levitt gives them opportunities to be in touch with people close to illegal activity.

    The students learn that all people -- even criminals -- respond to incentives. "Using the 'economic model of crime' introduced by [University Professor in Economics] Gary Becker in 1968, we examine the theoretical predictions of the model. Then we look at the data. Both theory and data suggest that harsher punishments lead to less crime, and that the more severe, certain and swift punishments are, the more effective they will be," said Levitt, Assistant Professor in Economics.

    Levitt isn't satisfied, however, to let his teaching rest alone on examining statistics and testing theories. He also likes to give students a chance to learn firsthand about the impact of crime on society so they can more critically review scholarly data and conclusions concerning crime.

    Several students in this year's course had an opportunity to learn more about crime when they rode in a city of Chicago police car as the officers patrolled the Woodlawn neighborhood.

    "The students didn't see any really serious crime, but they did get to witness the work of the police officers and see how they responded to situations such as domestic disputes and break-ins," he said.

    Another time, Levitt brought a gang intervention officer and several Chicago public high school students to speak about their life experiences. "Many of the students told me it was the best lecture of the course," Levitt said.

    Levitt followed up the lecture by taking members of his class to Chicago's Du Sable High School. There his students spent an entire day talking with high school students about their experiences.

    Levitt's research reflects his interest in crime. "I have no particular personal reason to be interested in crime. I don't come from a police family, for instance, but once I began studying crime I found it fascinating.

    "Plus I can watch the television show 'Cops' and call it part of my work," he added with a smile.

    Levitt has published several articles on crime and has several other projects underway, including one based on juvenile-crime statistics in Los Angeles County.

    "Authorities there decided several years ago to take every sixth case of a juvenile arrest and follow that person for a period of three years to see what happened after the case went to trial," Levitt said. "They didn't intervene in any way, but they wanted to know the outcome of each case.

    "What they found was that it didn't matter whether juveniles were detained or released on parole -- both actions appeared to have little or no effect on the criminal careers of the juveniles," Levitt said.

    Levitt is re-examining the cases, however, as he suspects these simple statistics are not telling the whole story.

    "One of the key points of my class is that it is critical to differentiate between correlation and causality. If judges can tell 'good' kids from 'bad' kids and they give the 'bad' kids harsher sentences, then even if the punishment works, it wouldn't be possible to tell from this simple correlational analysis."

    "We don't know those things when we just read the data," he said. "That's why we have to look a little deeper and be a bit skeptical of what it appears to tell us."