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Criminal Justice, Municipal

Enforcement and public corruption: Evidence from U.S. states


Judge on the bench (iStock)Judge on the bench (iStock)Judge on the bench (iStock)

Research on the economic, political and cultural context of public corruption — the misuse of power at the expense of citizens — has helped explain its prevalence. The best way to address the problem remains unresolved, however. “Deterrence theory” suggests that more law enforcement resources will discourage corruption and thus reduce the number of convictions. But the ideas of “system capacity” or “system overload” suggest that, because of the complexity of white-collar crimes such as corruption, they’re under-examined, and that more legal resources will result in more such convictions.

A 2010 study from Harvard University and the University of Copenhagen, “Enforcement and Public Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States,” uses data on corruption convictions from 1977 to 2003 to estimate the impact of prosecutorial resources on levels of criminal convictions in cases of corruption.

The study’s findings include:

  • In corruption cases, the idea of “system overload” — that the justice system doesn’t prosecute enough corruption because it doesn’t have the resources — seems to be more valid than deterrence theory. “Greater prosecutor resources result in more convictions for corruption, other things equal.”
  • Hiring one more full-time assistant U.S. attorney will increase the number of corruption convictions by an average of 1.9 per million inhabitants.
  • The data also “show that the strain on an overburdened system has diminished in more recent years, in ways consistent with an emerging deterrence effect.”

The researchers note that “divided government, at least in its party control of separated branches form, appears associated with lower corruption … while term limits, often held responsible for poor political performance, appear to be associated with higher corruption.”

Keywords: crime, municipal, corruption

    Writer: | Last updated: May 29, 2012

    Citation: Alt, James E., Lassen, David Dreyer. "Enforcement and Public Corruption: Evidence from US States," University of Copenhagen Department of Economics EPRU Working Paper No. 2010-08, August 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1666879.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Justice Department Is Criticized as Corruption Cases Close."

    1. What key insights from the article and study should reporters be aware of as they cover issues of corruption?

    Study analysis

    Read the full study titled “Enforcement and Public Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?