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Why Does Education Reduce Crime?

A paper by Brian Bell and co-authors, recently published in the Journal of Political Economy (March 2022) investigates the relationship between education and crime rates, with a specific focus on state-level compulsory school leaving (CSL) laws in the United States.

These laws require some students to stay in school longer and have been shown to simultaneously increase education levels and reduce crime rates.

The study challenges previous research, which suggests that the reduction in crime rates arising from these CSL laws occurs primarily due to the increased productivity resulting from higher education levels. Instead, the authors find that the main mechanism behind this crime reduction is what they call "dynamic incapacitation". This refers to the fact that crime rates peak at age 18, and keeping teenagers in school during this period can prevent them from engaging in criminal activities and avoid proceeding down the wrong path.

The study used changes in compulsory school leaving laws in the US between 1980 and 2010 to estimate the short- and long-run responses of arrest rates for those affected by an increase in the school leaving age. The results show that there is a clear reduction in crime rates as a result of these changes, with an increase in the school leaving age reducing the arrest rate by 6% for those affected. Additionally, arrest rates remain lower even many years later.

Interestingly, the study finds no evidence that productivity-enhancing factors resulting from higher education levels are driving the reduction in crime rates for the cohorts of American youth they studied. This is because the CSL reforms adopted in the US since the 1980s have been affecting an increasingly small group of youths. These students are likely harder to educate and less likely to progress to college, even if they remain in school longer.

The authors suggest that policymakers should consider the dynamic effects of education policy when designing crime reduction strategies. Keeping young people busy and off the streets during crucial periods of their lives is likely to reap benefits in both the short and long run.

The study also suggests that extending the age of compulsory schooling further may have small effects on subsequent economic outcomes, such as wages and employment. However, the sustained reduction in crime rates after schooling has finished makes the reforms cost-effective.

In conclusion, the study provides important insights into the relationship between education and crime rates. The authors' findings have significant implications for policymakers and researchers interested in reducing crime rates in the United States and beyond

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Brian Bell

Brian Bell

Professor of Economics

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