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.

Some microsynth notes

Nate Connealy, a criminologist colleague of mine heading to Tampa asks:

My question is from our CPP project on business improvement districts (Piza, Wheeler, Connealy, Feng 2020). The article indicates that you ran three of the microsynth matching variables as an average over each instead of the cumulative sum (street length, percent new housing structures, percent occupied structures). How did you get R to read the variables as averages instead of the entire sum of the treatment period of interest? I have the microsynth code you used to generate our models, but cannot seem to determine how you got R to read the variables as averages.

So Nate is talking about this paper, Crime control effects of a police substation within a business improvement district: A quasi-experimental synthetic control evaluation (Piza et al., 2020), and here is the balance table in the paper:

To be clear to folks, I did not balance on the averages, but simply reported the table in terms of averages. So here is the original readout from R:

So I just divided those noted rows by 314 to make them easier to read. You could divide values by the total number of treated units though in the original data to have microsynth match on the averages instead if you wanted to. Example below (this is R code, see the microsynth library and paper by Robbins et al., 2017):

#library(ggplot2) #not loading here, some issue

data(seattledmi) #just using data in the package
cs <- seattledmi
# calculating proportions
cs$BlackPerc <- (cs$BLACK/cs$TotalPop)*100
cs$FHHPerc <- (cs$FEMALE_HOU/cs$HOUSEHOLDS)*100
# replacing 0 pop with 0
cs[] <- 0

cov.var <- c("TotalPop","HISPANIC","Males_1521","FHHPerc","BlackPerc")
match.out <- c("i_felony", "i_misdemea")

sea_prop <- microsynth(cs, 
                       idvar="ID", timevar="time", intvar="Intervention", 
                       start.pre=1, end.pre=12,, 

summary(sea_prop) # balance table

And here you can see that we are matching on the cumulative sums for each of the areas, but we can divide our covariates by the number of treated units, and we will match on the proportional values.

# Can divide by 39 and get the same results
cs[,cov.var] <- cs[,cov.var]/39

sea_div <- microsynth(cs, 
                      idvar="ID", timevar="time", intvar="Intervention", 
                      start.pre=1, end.pre=12,, 

summary(sea_div) # balance table

Note that these do not result in the same weights. If you look at the results you will see the treatment effects are slightly different. Also if you do:

# Showing weights are not equal

It does not return True. Honestly not familiar enough with the procedure that microsynth uses to do the matching (Raking survey weights) to know if this is due to stochastic stuff or due to how the weighting algorithm works (I would have thought a linear change does not make a difference, but I was wrong).

On the bucket list is to do a matching algorithm that returns geographically contiguous areas and gives the weights all values of 1 (so creates comparable neighborhoods), instead of estimating Raking weights. That may be 5 years though before I get around to that. Gio has a nice map to show the way the weights work now is they may be all over the place (Circo et al., 2021) – I am not sure that is a good thing though.

But I did want to share some functions I used for the paper I worked with Nate on. First, this is for if you use the permutation approach, the function prep_synth returns some of the data in a nicer format to make graphs and calculate your own stats:

# Function to scoop up the data nicely
prep_synth <- function(mod){
    #Grab the plot data
    plotStats <- mod[['Plot.Stats']]
    #For the left graph
    Treat <-$Treatment))
    Treat$Type <- "Treat"
    #This works for my data at years, will not 
    #Be right for data with more granular time though
    Treat$Year <- as.integer(rownames(Treat))
    Cont <-$Control))
    Cont$Type <- "Control"
    Cont$Year <- as.integer(rownames(Cont))
    AllRes <- rbind(Treat,Cont)
    #For the right graph
    Perm <-$Difference)))
    SplitStr <- t(,"[.]")))
    colnames(SplitStr) <- c("Type","Year")
    rownames(SplitStr) <- 1:nrow(SplitStr)
    SplitStr <-
    Perm$Type <- as.character(SplitStr$Type)
    Perm$Year <- as.integer(as.character(SplitStr$Year))
    Perm$Group <- ifelse(Perm$Type == 'Main','Treatment Effect','Permutations') 
    #Reordering factor levels for plots
    AllRes$Type <- factor(AllRes$Type,levels=c('Treat','Control'))
    levels(AllRes$Type) <- c('Treated','Synthetic Control')
    Perm$Group <- factor(Perm$Group,levels=c('Treatment Effect','Permutations'))
    #Exporting result
    Res <- vector("list",length=2)
    Res[[1]] <- AllRes
    Res[[2]] <- Perm
    names(Res) <- c("AggOutcomes","DiffPerms")

It works for the prior tables, but I really made these functions to work with when you used permutations to get the errors. (In the micro synth example, it is easier to work with permutations than in the state level example for synth, in which I think conformal prediction intervals makes more sense, see De Biasi & Circo, 2021 for a recent real example with micro place based data though.)

# Takes like 1.5 minutes
sea_perm <- microsynth(seattledmi, 
                      idvar="ID", timevar="time", intvar="Intervention", 
                      start.pre=1, end.pre=12,, 
                      result.var=match.out, perm=99)

res_prop <- prep_synth(sea_perm)

So the dataframe in the first slot is the overall treatment effect, and the second dataframe is a nice stacked version for the permutations. First, I really do not like the percentage change (see Wheeler, 2016 for the most direct critique, but I have a bunch on this site). So I wrote code to translate the treatment effects into crime count reductions instead of the percent change stuff.

# Getting the observed treatment effect on count scale
# vs the permutations

agg_fun <- function(x){
    sdx <- sd(x)
    minval <- min(x)
    l_025 <- quantile(x, probs=0.025)
    u_975 <- quantile(x, probs=0.975)
    maxval <- max(x)
    totn <- length(x)
    res <- c(sdx,minval,l_025,u_975,maxval,totn)

treat_count <- function(rp){
    # Calculating the treatment effect based on permutations
    keep_vars <- !( names(rp[[2]]) %in% c("Year","Group") )
    out_names <- names(rp[[2]])[keep_vars][1:(sum(keep_vars)-1)]
    loc_dat <- rp[[2]][,keep_vars]
    agg_treat <- aggregate(. ~ Type, data = loc_dat, FUN=sum)
    n_cols <- 2:dim(agg_treat)[2]
    n_rows <- 2:nrow(agg_treat)
    dif <- agg_treat[rep(1,max(n_rows)-1),n_cols] - agg_treat[n_rows,n_cols]
    dif$Const <- 1
    stats <- aggregate(. ~ Const, data = dif, FUN=agg_fun)
    v_names <- c("se","min","low025","up975","max","totperm")
    long_stats <- reshape(stats,direction='long',idvar = "Const", 
                      v.names=v_names, times=out_names)
    # Add back in the original stats
    long_stats <- long_stats[,v_names]
    rownames(long_stats) <- 1:nrow(long_stats)
    long_stats$observed <- t(agg_treat[1,n_cols])[,1]
    long_stats$outcome <- out_names
    ord_vars <- c('outcome','observed',v_names)


So that is the cumulative total effect of the intervention. This is more similar to the WDD test (Wheeler & Ratcliffe, 2018), but since the pre-time period is matched perfectly, just is the differences in the post time periods. And here it uses the permutations to estimate the error, not any Poisson approximation.

But I often see folks concerned about the effects further out in time for synthetic control studies. So here is a graph that just looks at the instant effects for each time period, showing the difference via the permutation lines:

# GGPLOT graphs, individual lines
perm_data <- res_prop[[2]]
# Ordering factors to get the treated line on top
perm_data$Group <- factor(perm_data$Group, c("Permutations","Treatment Effect"))
perm_data$Type <- factor(perm_data$Type, rev(unique(perm_data$Type)))
pro_perm <- ggplot(data=perm_data,aes(x=Year,y=i_felony,group=Type,color=Group,size=Group)) + 
            geom_line() +
            scale_color_manual(values=c('grey','red')) + scale_size_manual(values=c(0.5,2)) +
            geom_vline(xintercept=12) + theme_bw() + 
            labs(x=NULL,y='Felony Difference from Control') + 
            scale_x_continuous(minor_breaks=NULL, breaks=1:16) + 
            scale_y_continuous(breaks=seq(-10,10,2), minor_breaks=NULL) +
            theme(panel.grid.major = element_line(linetype="dashed"), legend.title= element_blank(),
            legend.position = c(0.2,0.8), legend.background = element_rect(linetype="solid", color="black")) +
            theme(text = element_text(size=16), axis.title.y=element_text(margin=margin(0,10,0,0)))

And I also like looking at this for the cumulative effects as well, which you can see with the permutation lines widen over time.

# Cumulative vs Pointwise
perm_data$csum_felony <- ave(perm_data$i_felony, perm_data$Type, FUN=cumsum)
pro_cum  <- ggplot(data=perm_data,aes(x=Year,y=csum_felony,group=Type,color=Group,size=Group)) + 
              geom_line() +
              scale_color_manual(values=c('grey','red')) + scale_size_manual(values=c(0.5,2)) +
              geom_vline(xintercept=12) + theme_bw() + 
              labs(x=NULL,y='Felony Difference from Control Cumulative') + 
              scale_x_continuous(minor_breaks=NULL, breaks=1:16) + 
              scale_y_continuous(breaks=seq(-20,20,5), minor_breaks=NULL) +
              theme(panel.grid.major = element_line(linetype="dashed"), legend.title= element_blank(),
              legend.position = c(0.2,0.8), legend.background = element_rect(linetype="solid", color="black")) +
              theme(text = element_text(size=16), axis.title.y=element_text(margin=margin(0,10,0,0)))

If you do a ton of permutations (say 999 instead of 99), it would likely make more sense to do a fan chart type error bars and show areas of different percentiles instead of each individual line (Yim et al., 2020).

I will need to slate a totally different blog post to discuss instant vs cumulative effects for time series analysis. Been peer-reviewing quite a few time series analyses of Covid and crime changes – most everyone only focuses on instant changes, and does not calculate cumulative changes. See for example estimating excess deaths for the Texas winter storm power outage (Aldhous et al., 2021). Folks could do similar analyses for short term crime interventions. Jerry has a good example of using the Causal Impact package to estimate cumulative effects for a gang takedown intervention (Ratcliffe et al., 2017) for one criminal justice example I am familiar with.

Again for folks feel free to ask me anything. I may not always be able to do as deep a dive as this, but always feel free to reach out.


Costs and Benefits and

The Trace the other day presented an article giving a bit of (superficial overall in the end) critique of They are right in that the particular scenario with the Bronx defenders office highlights the need for a change in the way content aggregators like CrimeSolutions presents overall recommendations. I have reviewed for CrimeSolutions, and I think they did a reasonable job in creating a standardized form, but will give my opinion here about how we can think about social programs like the Bronx defenders program beyond the typical null hypothesis significance testing – we need to think about overall costs and benefits of the programs. The stat testing almost always just focuses on the benefits part, not the cost part.

But first before I go into more details on CrimeSolutions, I want to address Thomas Abt’s comments about potential political interference in this process. This is pizzagate level conspiracy theory nonsense from Abt. So the folks reviewing for Crime Solutions are other professors like me (or I should more specifically say I was a former professor). I’d like to see the logic from Abt how Kate Bowers, a professor at University College London, is compromised by ties to Donald Trump or the Republican Party.

Us professors get a standardized form to fill in the blank on the study characteristics, so there is no reasonable way that the standardized form biases reviews towards any particular political agenda. They are reviewed by multiple people (e.g. if I disagree with another researcher, we have emails back and forth to hash out why we had different ratings). So it not only has to be individuals working for the man, but collusion among many of us researchers to be politically biased like Abt suggests.

The only potential way I can see any political influence in the process is if people at DSG selectively choose particular studies. (This would only make sense though to say promote more CJ oriented interventions over other social service type interventions). Since anyone can submit a study (even non US ones!) highly skeptical political bias happens in that aspect either. Pretty sure the DSG folks want people to submit more studies FYI.

FYI Abt’s book Bleeding Out is excellent, not sure why he is spouting this nonsense about politics in this case though. So to be clear claiming political bias in these reviews is total non-sense, but of course the current implementation of the CrimeSolutions final end recommendation could be improved. (I really like the Trace as well, have talked to them before over Gio’s/my work on shooting fatalities, this article however doesn’t have much meat to critique CrimeSolutions beyond some study authors are unhappy and Abt’s suggestion of nefarious intentions.)

How does CrimeSolutions work now?

At a high level, CrimeSolutions wants to be a repository for policy makers to help make simple decisions on different policy decisions – what I take as a totally reasonable goal. So last I knew, they had five different end results a study could fall into (I am probably violating some TOS here sharing this screenshot but whatever, we do alot of work filling in the info as a reviewer!) These include Effective, Promising, Ineffective, Null Effect, and Inconclusive.

You get weights based on not only the empirical evidence presented, but aspects of the design itself (e.g. experiments are given a higher weight than quasi-experiments), the outcomes examined (shorter time periods less weight than longer time periods), the sample size, etc. It also includes fuzzy things like description of the program (enough to replicate), and evidence presented of adherence to the program (which gets the most points for quantitative evidence, but has categories for qualitative evidence and no evidence of fidelity as well).

So Promising is basically some evidence that it works, but the study design is not the strongest. You only get null effect is the study design is strong and there were no positive effects found. Again I mean ‘no positive effects’ in the limited sense that there are crime end points specified, e.g. reduced recidivism, overall crime counts in an area, etc. (it is named CrimeSolutions). But there can of course be other non-crime beneficial aspects to the program (which is the main point of this blog post).

When I say at the beginning that the Trace article is a bit superficial, it doesn’t actually present any problems with the CrimeSolutions instrument beyond the face argument hey I think this recommendation should be different! If all you take is someone not happy with the end result we will forever be unhappy with CrimeSolutions. You can no doubt ex ante make arguments all day long why you are unhappy for any idiosyncratic reason. You need to objectively articulate the problems with the CrimeSolutions instrument if you want to make any progress.

So I can agree that the brand No Effect for the Bronx defenders office does not tell the whole story. I can also say how the current CrimeSolutions instruments fails in this case, and can suggest solutions about how to amend it.

Going Beyond p-values

So in the case of the Bronx Defenders analysis, what happens is that the results are not statistically significant in terms of crime reductions. Also because it is a large sample and well done experimental design, it unfortunately falls into the more damning category of No Effects (Promising or Inconclusive are actually more uncertain categories here).

One could potentially switch the hypothesis testing on its head and do non-inferiority tests to somewhat fit the current CrimeSolutions mold. But I have an approach I think is better overall – to evaluate the utility of a program, you need to consider both its benefits (often here we are talking about some sort of crime reduction), as well as its costs:

Utility = Benefits - Costs

So here we just want Benefits > Costs to justify any particular social program. We can draw this inequality as a diagram, with costs and benefits as the two axes (I will get to the delta triangle symbols in a minute). Any situation in which the benefits are greater than the costs, we are on the good side of the inequality – the top side of the line in the diagram. Social programs that are more costly will need more evidence of benefits to justify investment.

Often we are not examining a program in a vacuum, but are comparing this program to another counter-factual, what happens if that new proposed program does not exist?

Utility_a = Benefits_a - Costs_a : Program A's utility
Utility_s = Benefits_s - Costs_s : Status Quo utility

So here we want in the end for Utility_a > Utility_s – we rather replace the current status quo with whatever this program is, as it improves overall utility. It could be the case that the current status quo is do nothing, which in the end is Utility_s = Benefits_s - Costs_s = 0 - 0 = 0.

It could also be the case that even if Benefits_a > Costs_a, that Utility_a < Utility_s – so in that scenario the program is beneficial, but is worse in overall utility to the current status quo. So in that case even if rated Effective in current CrimeSolutions parlance, a city would not necessarily be better off ponying up the cash for that program. We could also have the situation Benefits_a < Costs_a but Utility_a > Utility_s – that is the benefits of the program are still net negative, but they still have better utility than the current status quo.

So to get whether the new proposed program has added utility over the status quo, we take the difference in two equations:

  Utility_a = Benefits_a - Costs_a : Program A's utility
- Utility_s = Benefits_s - Costs_s : Status Quo utility
Δ Utility = Δ Benefits - Δ Costs

And we end up with our changes in the graph I showed before. Note that this implies a particular program can actually have negative effects on crime control benefits, but if it reduces costs enough it may be worth it. For example Megan Stevenson argues pre-trial detention is not worth the costs – although it no doubt will increase crime some, it may not be worth it. Although Stevenson focuses on harms to individuals, she may even be right just in terms of straight up costs of incarceration.

For the Bronx defenders analysis, they showed no benefits in terms of reduced crime. But the intervention was a dramatic cost savings compared to the current status quo. I represent the Bronx defenders results as a grey box in the diagram. It is centered on the null effects for crime benefits, but is clearly in the positive utility part of the graph. If it happened that it was expensive or no difference in costs though, the box would shift right and not clearly be in the effective portion.

For another example, I show the box as not a point in this graph, but an area. An intervention can show some evidence of efficacy, but not reach the p-value < 0.05 threshold. The Chicago summer jobs program is an example of this. It is rated as no effects. I think DSG could reasonably up the sample size requirement for individual recidivism studies, but even if this was changed to the promising or inconclusive recommendation in CrimeSolutions parlance the problem still remains by having a binary yes/no end decision.

So here the box has some uncertainty associated with it in terms of the benefits, but has more area on the positive side of the utility line. (These are just generic diagrams, not meant to be an exact representation, it could be more area of the square should be above the positive utility line given the estimates.) If the authors want to argue that the correct counter-factual status quo is more expensive – so it would shift the pink box to the left – it could as is be a good idea to invest in more. Otherwise it makes sense for the federal govt to invest in more research programs trying to replicate, although from a local govt perspective may not be worth the risk to invest in something like this given the uncertainty. (Just based on the Chicago experiment it probably would be worth the risk for a local govt IMO, but I believe overall jobs and crime programs have a less than stellar track record.)

So these diagrams are nice, but it leaves implicit how CrimeSolutions would in practice measure costs to put this on the diagram. Worst case scenario costs are totally unknown (so would span the entire X axis here, but in many scenarios I imagine people can give reasonable estimates of the costs of social programs. So I believe a simple solution to the current CrimeSolutions issue is two-fold.

  1. They should incorporate costs somewhere into their measurement instrument. This could either be as another weighted term in the Outcome Evidence/Primary Outcomes portion of the instrument, or as another totally separate section.
  2. It should have breakdowns on the website that are not just a single final decision endpoint, but show a range of potential results in a diagram like I show here. So while not quite as simple as the binary yes/no in the end, I believe that policy makers can handle that minor bit of added level of complexity.

Neither of these will make CrimeSolutions foolproof – but better to give suggestions to improve it than to suggest to get rid of it completely. I can forsee issues of defining in this framework what are the relevant costs. So the Stevenson article I linked to earlier talks about individual harm, it may be someone can argue that is not the right cost to calculate (and could do something like a willingness to pay experiment). But that goes for the endpoint outcomes as well – we could argue whether or not they are reasonable for the situation as well. So I imagine the CrimeSolutions/DSG folks can amend the instrument to take these cost aspects into account.