Precision in measures and policy relevance

Too busy to post much recently – will hopefully slow down a bit soon and publish some more technical posts, but just a quick opinion post for this Sunday. Reading a blog post by Callie Burt the other day – I won’t comment on the substantive critique of the Harden book she is discussing (since I have not read it), but this quote struck me:

precise point estimates are generally not of major interest to social scientists. Nearly all of our measures, including our outcome measures, are noisy, (contain error), even biased. In general, what we want to know is whether more of something (education, parental support) is associated with more (or less) of something else (income, education) that we care about, ideally with some theoretical orientation. Frequently the scale used to measure social influences is somewhat arbitrary anyway, such that the precise point estimate (e.g., weeks of schooling) associated with 1 point increase in the ‘social support scale’ is inherently vague.

I think Callie is right, precise point estimates often aren’t of much interest in general criminology. I think this perspective is quite bad though for our field as a whole in terms of scientific advancement. Most criminology work is imprecise (for various reasons), and because of this it has no hope to be policy relevant.

Lets go with Callie’s point about education is associated with income. Imagine we have a policy proposal that increases high school completion rates via allocating more money to public schools (the increased education), and we want to see its improvement on later life outcomes (like income). Whether a social program “is worth it” depends not only whether it is effective in increasing high school completion rates, but by how much and how much return on investment there is those later life outcomes we care about. Programs ultimately have costs; both in terms of direct costs as well as opportunity costs to fund some other intervention.

Here is another more crim example – I imagine most folks by now know that bootcamps are an ineffective alternative to incarceration for the usual recidivism outcomes (MacKenzie et al., 1995). But what folks may not realize is that bootcamps are often cheaper than prison (Kurlychek et al., 2011). So even if they do not reduce recidivism, they may still be worth it in a cost-benefit analysis. And I think that should be evaluated when you do meta-analyses of CJ programs.

Part of why I think economics is eating all of the social sciences lunch is not just because of the credibility revolution, but also because they do a better job of valuating costs and benefits for a wide variety of social programs. These cost estimates are often quite fuzzy, same as more general theoretical constructs Callie is talking about. But we often can place reasonable bounds to know if something is effective enough to be worth more investment.

There are a smattering of crim papers that break this mold though (and to be clear you can often make these same too fuzzy to be worthwhile critiques for many of my papers). For several examples in the policing realm Laura Huey and her Canadian crew have papers doing a deep dive into investigation time spent on cases (Mark et al., 2019). Another is Lisa Tompson and company have a detailed program evaluation of a stalking intervention (Tompson et al., 2021). And for a few papers that I think are very important are Priscilla Hunt’s work on general CJ costs for police and courts given a particular UCR crime (Hunt et al., 2017; 2019).

Those four papers are definitely not the norm in our field, but personally think are much more policy relevant than the vast majority of criminological research – properly estimating the costs is ultimately needed to justify any positive intervention.


  • Hunt, P., Anderson, J., & Saunders, J. (2017). The price of justice: New national and state-level estimates of the judicial and legal costs of crime to taxpayers. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(2), 231-254.
  • Hunt, P. E., Saunders, J., & Kilmer, B. (2019). Estimates of law enforcement costs by crime type for benefit-cost analyses. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 10(1), 95-123.
  • Kurlychek, M. C., Wheeler, A. P., Tinik, L. A., & Kempinen, C. A. (2011). How long after? A natural experiment assessing the impact of the length of aftercare service delivery on recidivism. Crime & Delinquency, 57(5), 778-800.
  • MacKenzie, D. L., Brame, R., McDowall, D., & Souryal, C. (1995). Boot camp prisons and recidivism in eight states. Criminology, 33(3), 327-358.
  • Tompson, L., Belur, J., & Jerath, K. (2021). A victim-centred cost–benefit analysis of a stalking prevention programme. Crime Science, 10(1), 1-11.
  • Mark, A., Whitford, A., & Huey, L. (2019). What does robbery really cost? An exploratory study into calculating costs and ‘hidden costs’ of policing opioid-related robbery offences. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 21(2), 116-129.
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