Murder and the operations researcher

March 01, 2007

The criminal justice system, often the subject of political controversy, gains major insights from the unbiased analytical tools that operations researchers introduced beginning with the President's Crime Commission in the 1960s, according to a career retrospective by the winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology.

The paper, "An O.R. Missionary's Visits to the Criminal Justice System," by Alfred Blumstein, appears in the February issue of Operations Research, the flagship journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).

"By bringing their analytical skills and system perspectives and without being constrained by the traditional presumptions that permeate all fields--perhaps to an extreme in criminal justice because of the strong ideological perspectives that pervade it--operations researchers bring new insights, new questions, and new challenges," writes Professor Blumstein of the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University.

Professor Blumstein, a pioneer in operations research, has been named a recipient of the prestigious 2007 Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his research into how criminals' activities vary over the course of their criminal careers. Operations research, says the professor, has changed the way that government and experts view the spike in murder and drug-related crimes in the nineties, the jump in imprisonment rate that began with the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing, and the extent that removing criminals from the streets really helps prevent crime.

In blunt remarks, Prof. Blumstein characterizes the criminal justice system as primitive for its continued slowness to adopt techniques of quantitative modeling, system perspective, and planning that are used in other policy areas. Professor Blumstein and colleagues have brought operations research toProf. Blumstein startlingly observes that crime-fighting efforts aimed at deterring drug use in the 1980s and 1990s actually spurred a rise in murder and drug-related crime. He determined that during the crack cocaine epidemic, imprisoning less violent drug dealers in their twenties led to the recruitment of younger teenage boys, who are more prone to resolve arguments with violence. These teens began obtaining handguns for self-defense and that stimulated others to get their own guns for their own defense and to achieve status among their peers. As a result, he observes, crime rates for this age category soared. Murder and drug arrests dropped in the mid-1990s, but no thanks to law enforcement, he maintains. Instead, the crime rate fell precipitously when people in drug-ridden areas realized how badly crack cocaine was damaging their parents and older siblings and turned away from the drug. A reduced need for teenage drug sellers coincided with a robust economy, so these young people could leave the underground economy for regular jobs.

Professor Blumstein's paper also looks at the way that operations researchers have shed new light on the path and length that criminal careers take, as well as the success of imprisonment in "incapacitating" the crimes they might have committed while in prison. He outlines a controversial debate among criminologists about the ability to identify criminals who are more likely to commit crimes, and whether these criminals' sentences should be lengthened based on a projection of crimes they might commit in the future.

Prof. Blumstein's paper also looks at a jump in imprisonment since the 1970s from 110 per 100,00 to 500 per 100,000 that has made the United States the world leader in incarceration, now ahead of even Russia.

The change, his research shows, is a result of the political system pushing aside the criminal justice system in addressing crime in America.

He writes, "the results of those analyses make it clear that more crime has not been a major driver and that arrests per crime has been astonishingly flat over the period."

He adds, "The 30-second sound bite that featured a cell door slamming provided much more powerful rhetorical appeal than mulling over the trade-offs among incarceration, community treatment, rehabilitation, and the other complexities in decision on appropriate sentences."

INFORMS journals are strongly cited in Journal Citation Reports, an industry source. In the JCR subject category "operations research and management science," Operations Research ranked in the top 10 along with two other INFORMS journals.

The special MBA issue published by Business Week includes Operations Research and two other INFORMS journals in its list of 20 top academic journals that are used to evaluate business school programs. Financial Times includes Operations Research and four other INFORMS journals in its list of academic journals used to evaluate MBA programs.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) is an international scientific society with 10,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, financial engineering, and telecommunications. The INFORMS website is More information about operations research is at

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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