The average cost of a murder tops $17.2 million, according to a new study that calculated the monetary costs of criminal careers using a sample of 654 convicted and incarcerated murderers. Researchers assessed the total costs — from the cost of incarceration to lost productivity — stemming from murder, rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault and burglary in the study Murder by Numbers.
I spoke last week with study author Matt DeLisi, editor of the Journal of Criminal Justice and coordinator of criminal justice studies at Iowa State University, about his surprising findings — and about what he hopes they’ll do.
Talk about how you calculated the costs of the crimes.
The actual costs of the crime are derived from work by a scholar named Mark Cohen. The Murder by Numbers study is kind of a validation study using his methods and applying it to a different data set. The original work in this area looks at victim cost, the cost of arrest and adjudication, the cost of incarceration, the opportunity costs of offenders’ time, productivity.
In recent years, they’ve added another variable called ‘willingness to pay.’ Willingness to pay is the amount of money the general public would be willing to pay to try to preclude crime from happening. It’s the willingness to pay for crime prevention. That includes personal security, avoidant behaviors, third-party cost of insurance, government welfare programs, safeguards against victimization. Recent research suggests these willingness to pay estimates are anywhere from two to 10 times higher than the previous estimates of the cost of crime. These willingness to pay estimates, because they’re much larger, are capturing some of these intangible costs associated with crime and victimization.
Having said all of that, it’s clear to me that many of these costs are simply incalculable. You really can’t put a price tag on a homicide victimization or a sexual assault victimization. We can create estimates, but I also firmly believe that many of these costs are simply beyond money and they have a deep psychological and social effect.
Were you surprised by the numbers you found?
I was somewhat surprised because I had never done a cost of crime study where the willingness to pay component was in there. For example, for murder the total cost was about $17.3 million. Over $12 million of that was encompassed in the willingness to pay component and nearly $5 million was pertaining to victim costs. Another thing that jumps out is because the offenders have admitted at least one homicide offense, by definition they were going to be very costly offenders. The range of homicide victims was one to nine, so the individual who murdered nine people had costs in the $150 million to $160 million range.
If you think qualitatively about a homicide offender or a multiple homicide offender, there are enormous costs associated with it. I’m thinking of the Washington D.C. sniper case in 2002. Think of the effect that had on the D.C. area and surrounding states. You had this tremendous fear, tremendous uncertainty and all these protective measures people started to do to safeguard against being a victim of these purely random crimes. These estimates provide a monetary value to the huge effects a single offender or extreme offender can produce.
How did your study advance previous research?
The contribution of my study is two things. One is use of a different data set. The second, and more important part, is it’s an enriched sample, or a more pathological sample. In the literature, there’s going to be conventional samples where the offenders aren’t necessarily as severe, so it’s likely their costs won’t be as high. This study shows that if we go to the extreme and look at homicide offenders, they will presumably have the highest cost.
What’s the purpose of attaching monetary figures to crimes? Do you have a goal for this research?
There is a large and vibrant prevention world that tries to identify at-risk youth and at-risk families and provide some modestly-costing social services that will try to push kids out of risky or at-risk environments into more normative or pro-social environments. I’m hoping these monetization studies show the end result of what happens if we allow crime to go over a lengthy criminal career. My hope is that this information — because no one wants to pay for these costs, let alone endure all the victimization — provides an incentive to continue to invest in prevention. Prevention has been going on for at least 50 years and it’s a large area of research in the social and behavioral sciences. There’s a lot of grant money invested in it. Social scientists have been well aware that if we can provide services upfront we can many times preclude delinquency and associated problems from developing.
Image: Matt DeLisi