Aurélie Ouss is among the three economists who were selected, by the jury bringing together representatives of the Circle of Economists and the World, for their work in applied economics and promoting public debate.
You use the tools of economics to study the functioning of justice. Your research has led several states and cities in the United States to carry out reforms to their judicial policy. Which ones?
About 20% of those jailed in the United States are in pre-trial detention – the figure is 20% to 30% in France – largely because judges fear they will not show up for court hearings. There is also a system of financial deposits which are taken if a free defendant does not appear for trial. But these deterrence policies, while pervasive, are costly; and I was able to demonstrate, in a study in Philadelphia, that financial guarantees do not have the desired effects. On the other hand, I show, in an experiment which I carried out in New York, that simple SMS sent to free defendants a few days before their trial prove to be very effective. Several cities and counties, New York, Florida, Illinois, have adopted this method of warning to limit the use of remand, extremely expensive.
It is important to adopt, in the field of justice, this type of evaluation of public policies, familiar to economists. Because judicial policies are implicitly based on the idea of deterrence: the more the police are present, the more the sentence or the fine is heavy, the more the offender would be dissuaded from acting. My research shows that these models are incomplete, and that refining our understanding of what drives people to action opens up new avenues for legal action.
Haven’t economic studies on justice existed for a long time in the United States?
There was a first wave of empirical studies when crime exploded in the 1980s, the question posed rather being how to bring down the number of crimes. Today, research takes more account of the financial and human costs of the fight against crime.
The cost / benefit approach indeed makes it possible to question the “benefit” of legal action, if we take into account, for example, the effect of the criminal record on the search for a job, or a prison experience on mistrust of institutions, etc. The justice system is not used to asking itself if “it will work”: it is satisfied with counting a posteriori – the figures of delinquency, the congestion of the prisons, etc. But she doesn’t question what it costs to reduce crime!
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