Education, housing, and community health resources

Regardless of the number of police departments in an area or number of arrests an officer makes, policing will not eliminate crime. In fact, policing was never designed to do so. The first police departments and slave patrols of the 19th century were formed to protect the property of wealthy individuals by disincentivizing criminal activity through punishment. But why do individuals commit crimes to begin with?

In 1968, Gary Becker published a paper that revolutionized the way economists and policymakers conceptualized crime. Becker theorized that criminality was a rational choice; individuals pursue criminal acts because the expected benefits of committing a crime are greater than the expected costs of breaking the law. This theory is especially relevant in the consideration of non-violent crime because it supposes that those who commit these crimes do so because they lack the time or opportunities to gainfully obtain the resources they need to sustain their livelihood. For example, individuals sell drugs because they can make more money in the underground economy than in the legal one. More simply, a person drives without a license because taking a bus would make them late for the job that allows them to pay the bills.

Policing serves as the disincentive to crime. For some, the likelihood of being caught for participating in an illegal activity and the costs associated with being fined/arrested/sent to prison outweigh the benefit of supplementing one's income or getting to work on time. This cost/benefit analysis presents an extremely important framework through which to understand interventions that may lessen criminal activity. 


Will an individual spend his/her limited time/resources in the legal economy? This depends on the root of the cost/benefit analysis—(perceived) economic opportunity. Extensive research connects race and gender with the availability of almost all opportunities, but for the sake of brevity, this article will focus on education, housing, and healthcare. Research shows that interventions in these areas can significantly decrease crime in local communities. 


Education: Education reduces criminality in two primary ways. Firstly, those with higher educational attainment have more opportunities to apply for more competitive and higher paying jobs, increasing the financial incentive to work and live according to the law. Secondly, increased schooling builds individual social skills like discipline and ingenuity which help folks succeed in their communities. Scholarly research proves these mechanisms to be true. Lochner and Moretti’s seminal 2004 report published in the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that an additional year of required schooling results in a 0.10-percentage-point reduction in the probability of incarceration for Whites, and a 0.37-percentage-point reduction for Blacks. The same study found that a 1% increase in male high school graduation rates would produce a social savings from crime reduction of approximately $1.4 billion (Lochner and Moretti). In short, early investments in equitable and accessible education benefit the community in the long term and reduce the need for later spending on criminal apprehension, prosecution, and imprisonment.


Housing: Criminality and homelessness are deeply intertwined. People who have been incarcerated more than once are 13x more likely to experience homelessness than someone who has not been incarcerated given the job discrimination and systemic barriers to housing. On the other side of the system, an individual experiencing homelessness is significantly more likely to interact with police officers, usually for "nuisance offenses" like loitering, sleeping in public places, or public urination. Those interactions are incredibly costly; research of the Denver homeless population suggests that a person trapped in the homelessness-jail cycle costs the city nearly $4,000 in criminal justice costs over 90 days. Truly supportive housing initiatives provide individuals with long-term, affordable, accessible, habitable, safe, community integrated, and culturally adequate lodging. Initiatives that offer these elements provide stability to those presently unhoused and allow them to pursue economic opportunities in their area. 


*Note: Providing housing in the present context will not alleviate the decades of systemic racism that created the housing problems of urban areas. For more details, read “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. 


Healthcare: Research suggests expanding healthcare access can impact crime in three distinct ways. Reducing drug abuse can reduce the violent behavior often associated with illegal drug trade. It can also reduce the violent behavior caused by particular drugs as well as petty crimes used to fund drug addictions. More generally, expanded access to healthcare provides physical wellbeing and more fiscal stability for those for whom paying for health insurance was not financially possible. An examination of Medicaid expansion through 2015 estimates that increased access to Medicaid within the first two years of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act reduced violent crime by 5.8% and property crime by 3%. These statistics suggest that investments in healthcare can have long term societal benefits. 


As detailed above, social interventions address several root causes of opportunity while the criminal justice system penalizes the implications of the lack of opportunity. This explains why investments in policing do not necessarily cause decreases in non-violent criminal activity, which accounts for 95% of police calls for service (Vera). While police expend time and resources responding to non-violent criminal acts, interventions in education, housing, and healthcare decrease the likelihood of non-violent criminal incidents occurring in the first place.

Sources and additional resources (click to expand)