Exploring global disparities in criminal sentencing

Catherine Heard directs the World Prison Research Programme, at Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research. The research team monitors trends in world prison populations and examines the causes and the consequences of rising levels of imprisonment. The Institute’s latest comparative research on the sentencing of burglary, drug importation and murder highlights vast disparities between different jurisdictions in their approaches to custodial sentencing across a range of offences. Here, Catherine discusses some of the most striking disparities.

Imagine being convicted of a crime in another country, where the sentencing framework is very different to the one in your home country. For drug trafficking, you could be looking at life imprisonment and a hefty fine if you were sentenced in Thailand, but be home within months if you happened to be in the Netherlands.

Working with international research partners, we have examined how three hypothetical offence scenarios – below – would be dealt with in ten jurisdictions: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, New York State, India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands, and New South Wales, Australia. The work involved researching sentencing laws and policies, and interviewing 70 experienced defence lawyers about sentencing in practice.

Burglary

P-, a 32-year-old man, broke into a house when the residents were at work, accessing the rear of the house via a back alley and breaking a window to gain entry. He stole jewellery and cash belonging to one of the residents, worth a total of approximately [US$ 500]. He has several prior convictions for the same type of offence and other similar offences.

Drug importation

K-, a 26-year-old woman, was recruited in her home country of [Nigeria] to transport heroin in return for a cash payment. She had flown to [England] from her home country, carrying the heroin in a hidden compartment in a money belt. The quantity of heroin was 400 grams, or a little under 1 lb.

Intentional homicide

Two 23-year-old friends, L- and J-, got into an argument while drinking together in a bar. Both left the scene, and L- texted a mutual friend to say that he was going to kill J-. The next morning, on leaving his home for work, J- was confronted by L- who had been waiting for him outside his property. L- was armed with a knife, which he used to stab J- fatally in the chest.

Note: Minor adjustments were made to the value of items stolen, the country the drugs were imported from, and whether cocaine or heroin was imported, to ensure appropriateness for each country.

These contrasting scenarios allowed for clear comparisons between various elements of legal systems and sentencing frameworks, while also engaging important criminal justice and social policy issues.

Previous convictions a bar to non-custodial options

For the domestic burglar P-, non-custodial options would have been possible, even likely, in most of the ten countries, without the aggravating factor of his previous convictions. (His chances of avoiding prison would have been all the stronger if P- had pleaded guilty and made reparation.) But because of his prior offences, P- would probably get an immediate custodial sentence of several years, with three or four years likely in most countries. Only in the Netherlands would P- have a real prospect of avoiding prison, if his lawyer could convince the court that custody would serve no purpose and P- had better rehabilitation prospects in the community.

Disproportionately severe sentencing of drug offences

The most striking degree of disparity was found in the drug importation scenario. K- would be likely to receive a life sentence in Thailand, a 20 year term in India, 15 years in South Africa, and between five and 18 years in most of the other countries. Again, the Netherlands was the exception, with lawyers estimating her likely sentence at around four months.

In six jurisdictions, K- was also liable to receive a fine on top of custody: in New South Wales, the fine could equate to almost US$700,000 (but would be at the court’s discretion). In Brazil, a minimum fine equivalent to around US$3,500 would apply. In Kenya, South Africa, Thailand, and India, non-payment of the fine would probably mean extra time in custody. In Brazil it would mean removal from the electoral roll and losing the right to work.

Life sentences

In the case of L-, the perpetrator of homicide with intent, a life sentence would be the probable outcome in most of the ten countries. This would currently take effect as a whole life sentence (that is, with no possibility of release) in Kenya, potentially also South Africa, and as a minimum term of 20 to 25 years in England and Wales, New York State and New South Wales, with a right to apply for release on parole thereafter. In India and Thailand limited remission can be earned after a certain point. Also in Thailand, prisoners can earn eligibility for royal pardon and release as part of a system of intermittent amnesties.

The death penalty remains on the statute book as the sanction for murder in Kenya (where it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2017), Thailand and India. In Thailand it is also mandated in drug trafficking cases but is generally commuted to life imprisonment if there is a confession. None of the defence lawyers considered a death sentence likely on the facts in L-’s case.

Brazil, alone among the ten countries, has no life sentence. For homicide, a mandatory minimum of 12 years applies: if judges sentence above this level (up to a statutory maximum of 30 years) they are expected to provide reasons. In Brazil, L- would probably receive a 14 year sentence, the first five or six years to be served in maximum security conditions.

In the Netherlands, life sentences  are almost never used. The most likely outcome for L- in a Dutch court would be a custodial term somewhere between three and twelve years, with a stay in a psychiatric treatment centre afterwards if the court was satisfied that he had a treatable condition. (Otherwise, the custodial term would likely be ten to twelve years, but without a potentially open-ended period in a psychiatric clinic.)

Do long prison sentences deter?

Politicians and governments tend to justify the use of life or very long custodial sentences largely on grounds of deterrence. The same reasoning has supported tougher sentences for repeat offenders, with fairly long custodial terms even when the index offence and the prior convictions did not involve violence. But the research evidence on the (general or specific/individual) deterrent effects of harsh sentences suggests that they are limited; the certainty of detection and punishment are more effective deterrents. Deterrence theory also fails to account for impulsivity, unmet mental health needs, the influence of drugs and alcohol, or the role of poverty and weak social support – all factors known to underlie much offending.

What is beyond doubt is that the introduction of tougher, more arbitrary sentencing regimes greatly increased prison populations, while doing nothing to resolve the underlying and complex drivers of much (re-)offending.

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The surprising impact of innovation on reducing climate change

New research by the Department of Management’s Dr Fred A. Yamoah and colleagues explores the relationship between innovation input, governance and carbon dioxide emissions.

Picture of a wind farm

There is no doubt that the humanitarian and economic impact of climate change is a matter for global concern. However, prior research tells us that it is emerging and developing economies that are likely to be hit hardest by the impact of global warming.

In their 2019 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that emerging and developing economies, with their heavy reliance on agriculture, forestry and tourism, were more at risk from the adverse impact of climate change than more developed economies. Indeed, the IPCC found that every one-degree centigrade increase in temperature would lead to a 1.3% drop in economic growth in an emerging economy.

What role does innovation play in the fight against climate change?

Typically, the fate of countries in this position has been viewed somewhat fatalistically, with little known about what can be done to mitigate the damage caused by the poor climate choices of more developed countries. However, since innovative technologies are known to have a positive impact on climate change factors by conserving energy and reducing emissions, we wanted to know whether increased innovation input could support developing economies in the fight against climate change.

Our study involved an analysis of data from the World Bank database on 29 emerging countries over the period from 1990 to 2018. My colleagues Godfred Adjapong Afrifa, Gloria Appiah (both Kent Business School), Ishmael Tingbani (Bournemouth University) and I examined whether investment in cutting-edge technologies could help address climate change problems in emerging economies, and how this relationship is supported or mitigated by governance factors.

The impact of governance

Why is it important to consider governance alongside innovation and climate change? First of all, it is good for business: stakeholder theory tells us that organisations that please their stakeholders by following ethical norms of fairness, trustworthiness and respect are likely to see improved overall performance in the long term.

When it comes to climate change targets, governments and international governing bodies such as the EU or ECOWAS are among the most critical stakeholders, as they are more likely to take a long term view and possess the necessary regulatory powers to ensure best practices are upheld.

How innovation benefits emerging economies

The introduction of innovative technologies and practices can benefit emerging economies in a number of ways. For farmers, genetic technologies can develop resilient crops that adapt to environmental challenges in agriculture. New technologies also typically conserve energy and reduce harmful fuel emissions.

Looking at the data, our results suggest that emerging countries with high innovative competencies reduce climate change problems by approximately 26.8%, with a 10% increase in cutting-edge technology.

While these findings show the dramatic impact of innovation on mitigating the negative effects climate change, it is important to note that the positive results were moderated by governance factors, as the quality of governance influences countries’ investment in innovative technologies towards curbing environmental damage.

Contrary to the typically deterministic view of climate change, our results suggest that emerging economies’ innovation efforts could have a significant impact on national and global success in the fight against climate change.

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The economics of public sector employment

Our Dr Pedro Gomes has been researching public employment for nearly fifteen years. He shares why it is so important to understand how the public sector works and the key findings from his research.

Public employment is a significant consideration in any national economy. In developed countries, public employment makes up 15-30 percent of total employment and represents the large majority of government consumption. In the US, for example, the government spends 60 percent more on general government employees than on the purchase of intermediate goods and services.

The public sector also operates according to different rules than the rest of the economy, as governments do not face the same competitive forces, nor have the same objectives as private sector firms.

Considering that the public sector is responsible for delivering many key services in our society, from education to healthcare, it is essential to have a good understanding of how its employment operates. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has again put focus on the importance of having a modern public sector, with an employment force prepared to face difficult, unpredictable and unlikely crises, but its aftermath with high public debt, also puts emphasis on the costs of the public sector workforce.

Below are three of the key findings from my research into this area.

Governments hire disproportionately more educated workers

In the paper Public Employment Redux, my colleagues Pietro Garibaldi, Thepthida Sopraseuth and I explore the phenomenon whereby governments hire more educated workers than the private sector.

We noticed that governments hire very few workers with low qualifications. In the US, for example, one third of workers have a masters or a PhD qualification, and one third of these work for the government.  We documented empirical evidence for this education bias in the US, UK, France and Spain.

There are a few different explanations for this trend:

  • The government needs more educated workers to provide its highly technical goods and services, such as healthcare, education and the judicial system.
  • Higher educated workers take more of a wage penalty to work in the public sector, so are relatively less expensive to hire.
  • Public sector jobs that require low qualifications pay more than similar level jobs in the private sector, so they attract workers with more qualifications.

Within our model, we found that the technological skills needed for the public sector was the main driver of the disproportionate representation of educated workers, but that wage setting and excess underemployment explain 12-15 percent of the education bias.

Unlike other sectors, the government is able to set wages more freely, as the cost is financed from tax revenue. If the government chooses to pay very high wages, too many people will choose a skilled role in the public sector as their first choice. However, if wages are too low, too few workers will want to join the government.

In reality, a balance is needed, so the government can always attract the workers it needs, without leading to underemployment in the public sector.

Nepotism in hiring practices allows friends and family to ‘jump the queue’ for government roles

Public sector hires are often based on nepotism: Scopa (2009) found that the probability of working in the public sector is 44% higher for individuals whose parents also work in the public sector, while Colonnelli et al. (2020) found that politically connected individuals in Brazil enjoy easier access to public sector jobs.

In my research into this topic with Andri Chassamboulli, we suggest that workers can use their connections to find jobs in the public sector faster. We created a search and matching model with private and public sectors to test this theory.

Surprisingly, we encountered some positive side effects to nepotistic practices. Conditional on high public sector wages, our findings suggest that hiring through connections reduces unemployment, as people who do not have connections will instead find roles in the private sector. Conversely, if the government sets the optimal wage possible for the successful running of the public sector, nepotism is reduced.

We conclude, therefore, that nepotism is a symptom of a problem in the public sector, rather than the disease, and the problem is created when wages are set too high.

Women prefer working in the public sector

In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. My colleague Zoë Kuehn and I developed a model to try to make sense of this imbalance.

Our findings show that the gender imbalance in the public sector is driven by supply, meaning that women self-select to work in the public sector more than men. One explanation for this is that the type of job carried out by the government is coincidentally the type of work preferred by women, such as healthcare and education. However, even discounting these sectors, women’s public employment remains 20-25% higher than men.

This remaining imbalance can be explained by the different characteristics of public and private employment. The gender wage gap and working hours are both reduced in the public sector, making this an attractive choice for women who may be factoring family commitments alongside work opportunities in their choice of employment. Alongside reduced working hours, the public sector offers additional benefits such as more sick days, flexible hours and employer-provided childcare, ensuring an overall better work-life balance in the public sector.

 

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Decision making under uncertainty: Ambiguity preferences

David Schröder, Associate Professor in Finance at Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, and Elisa Cavatorta, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, have developed a questionnaire to measure how members of the public make decisions under uncertainty. Take the survey online to find out your ambiguity preferences.

Cartoon of a figure at a crossroads

This article was originally posted on the Research Outreach blog and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Every decision and action that we take in life is associated with a degree of uncertainty; whether we cross a road, what we invest our money in, what career we follow and the thousands of other decisions that we make on a daily basis. Over the years, economists and psychologists have studied different factors that affect how individuals make decisions under uncertainty so that they can better understand what drives the behaviours that we see in the world.

One of the underlying factors that explain individual behaviour under uncertainty is the different degree of tolerance anyone has for situations of uncertainty, in other words their individual preferences. To apply the behavioural models proposed in the scientific literature, it is important to accurately measure these preferences driving our behaviour. Elisa Cavatorta, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, and David Schröder, Associate Professor in Finance at Birkbeck, University of London, noticed that existing approaches to measure uncertainty attitudes are overly complex and therefore rarely used to measure preferences outside economic laboratories. To improve the ability to measure uncertainty attitudes and make their measurement more accessible, they designed a new questionnaire to facilitate the assessment of the preferences guiding everyday decision making under uncertainty.

Understanding risk and ambiguity

The most common factor that people associate with decision making under uncertainty is risk, and how tolerant an individual is towards risky scenarios. In a risk-based situation, we have a sense of the likelihood of the different outcomes that our decisions could deliver. For example, if you roll a fair dice, you know that you have a one in six chance of getting a specific number. Likewise, outcomes of recurring situations may involve known likelihoods: if your parent cooks their usual signature dish, you know the chances that it tastes delicious.

In many situations however, there is an additional degree of uncertainty about the potential outcomes of our decisions and actions. For example, if you hear that the dice that you are about to use has a flaw that means it will not roll fairly, you can no longer accurately predict the likelihood of rolling the number four. If a stranger cooks for you, the probability that the dish is delicious can be vague. Thanks to the work of Knight (1921) and Ellsberg (1961), this degree of uncertainty over vague or unknown probabilities is referred to as ambiguity. Different people have a different “taste” for the lack of accurate information about the probabilities of given outcomes and will respond differently.

Our preferences towards ambiguity guide the decisions that we make under uncertainty. There isn’t an optimal decision that fits all. Optimal decisions for everyone depend on one’s own preferences. If we can accurately measure ambiguity preferences, then we have a powerful insight into human behaviour, that is, how people make choices subject to limited information.

Measuring ambiguity preferences

Traditionally, ambiguity attitudes have been measured within a controlled economic laboratory environment. Ambiguity tests have focused on specific decision tasks involving known and unknown probabilities, often complex to understand and requiring lengthy explanations. This method has produced very accurate results; however, the complexity of these tasks makes them impractical to roll out on a large enough scale to understand the decision-making behaviours that we see in the general population.

Elisa Cavatorta and David Schröder researched ambiguity preferences in great detail. They started from the results in a laboratory setting, but the researchers were motivated to find a more practical way of measuring ambiguity preferences outside of these experiments. They knew that an online survey questionnaire or a questionnaire that could be conducted by telephone would be a far more practical mechanism for collecting data from much larger groups of participants and be more practical for researchers who conduct field studies.

Survey design

Cavatorta and Schröder have designed a simple survey questionnaire, which accurately measures ambiguity preferences. Their work has been inspired by various studies that recommended using surveys to measure other economic preferences. In their 2019 paper, they develop a measurement for ambiguity preferences, adding to existing ones designed to elicit preferences for risk, trust and impatience.

The research team developed their questionnaire using a sample of 121 students from various colleges of the University of London. The idea was to find the best combination of survey questions that would most accurately predict ambiguity preferences elicited with the well-established approach in the laboratory setting. The challenge was to find the best combination of these survey questions. The research team selected around 50 possible candidate survey questions of various types. Some of these questions are short thought-experiments where participants make choices in some hypothetical games (e.g. selecting the preferred option between one unknown, i.e., ambiguous, probability and one with known probability, i.e. risky). Some questions are attitudinal questions from the psychology literature, in which participants assess how much they like or dislike a situation.

The researchers considered the predictive power of all combinations of the candidate questions. Using a selection process that evaluates all possible combinations and then selects the best predictors is a data-driven method that minimises forms of bias in the selection process. The result is a five survey-item questionnaire that provides an individual ambiguity preferences score that correlates well with the ambiguity preference score that would come out in a laboratory setting. This means the survey questionnaire is an accurate substitute when measurement in the laboratory is impractical or unavailable.

Possible uses of the new measurement

The professors recommend their measurement whenever incentivised experiments in a laboratory are not feasible, for example, when researchers need to gather ambiguity preferences of a large number of participants, field-studies, or in scenarios where time or money is limited.

This questionnaire provides the opportunity to conduct large-scale studies into the impact of ambiguity preferences on economic and social behaviour. Given the uncertainty surrounding many decisions in every-day life, applications of the measurement can be wide-ranging. The current pandemic demonstrates people have different preferences for ambiguity and this guides different reactions and health behaviour. Another application concerns the financial services industry: the industry has traditionally focused on risk preferences when recommending the most suitable investment options to its clients. Risk preference assessments help us to understand one element of what makes an investment a good match for an individual. However, investments often involve unknown risks (i.e. ambiguity), so the measurement can assist financial services professionals to better tailor their product recommendations to the client’s tastes and needs.

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