Calm Alternative To Heated Debate On Crime Given By Operations Research, Says Rand Analyst

December 10, 1997

BALTIMORE, December 10 - Often emotional decisions about how to fight crime can be made with the help of a powerful, impartial tool - operations research - according to an article in this month's edition of a magazine published by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). Operations research - including mathematical modeling and sensitivity analysis, which varies assumptions to test their sensitivity to change - can help crime fighters and law makers choose the best way to battle illicit drug use and associated crimes, writes Dr. Jonathan Caulkins.

Dr. Caulkins is the principal author of a major report on mandatory minimum sentencing released earlier this year by RAND, the California-based think tank. The RAND study compared the costs of treating, apprehending, and imprisoning drug offenders. It concluded that drug treatment and, to a lesser extent, conventional enforcement are more cost-effective in combating illicit drug use and reducing associated crimes than mandatory minimum sentences. It also concluded that if mandatory minimum sentences are used at all, they should be targeted at high-level dealers.

"Operations research techniques can make a valuable contribution to policy analysis," writes Dr. Caulkins. "For example, before this study no one advocating or opposing the use of mandatory minimums had discussed the roles that the cost of arresting a dealer have in determining whether mandatory minimum sentences are the most effective tactic."

In reaching their conclusions, Dr. Caulkins and the RAND team used sensitivity analysis to compare the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing, traditional law enforcement, and drug treatment on both drug use and crime. They examined sensitivity in three areas: (1) drug dealers: how differences in the type of dealers targeted - high-level or average dealers - would affect drug abuse and crime rates; (2) time horizons: how the preference to realize benefits in the short- or long-term would affect the choice of a program; and (3) reducing drug-related crimes: the effect of the different programs on specific types of crimes associated with drug abuse, including assaults committed by those suffering drug intoxication or withdrawal, burglaries and thefts committed to finance drug habits, and clashes between drug dealers to resolve drug-related disputes.

"Good sensitivity analysis can bring a fairly dry result to life," writes Dr. Caulkins. "Conveyed in pictures and backed with clear "stories," they can give people without much analytical training (including policy makers, the media, and the public at large) insight into fairly complicated issues."

Dr. Caulkins is an Associate Professor of Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University and an operations research analyst at RAND. His article, "Sense and Sensitivity Analysis: Landmark Study Models the Cost-Effectiveness of Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences," appears in the December issue of OR/MS Today. OR/MS Today can be viewed on-line at

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work primarily in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications.

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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