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Nagin wins Stockholm criminology prize

Courtesy of Daniel Nagin
Nagin has published numerous papers on criminology and sociology.  (credit: Courtesy of Daniel Nagin) Courtesy of Daniel Nagin Nagin has published numerous papers on criminology and sociology. (credit: Courtesy of Daniel Nagin)

Daniel Nagin, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III university professor of public policy and statistics, described the research that won him the 2014 Stockholm Prize for Criminology.

“I’ve been doing work which calls into question a lot of sentencing policy — the way we use imprisonment — in the United States,” Nagin said.

The Stockholm Prize, awarded by the Swedish Ministry of Justice with contributions from the Torsten Söderberg Foundation, is “awarded annually for outstanding achievements in criminological research or for the application of research results by practitioners for the reduction of crime and the advancement of human rights,” according to a university press release.

Nagin won the prize for his research on deterrence, the idea that the threat of punishment will prevent people from breaking the law.

According to Nagin, the research for which he received the award “specifically has to do with the impact of sending people to prison on their subsequent offenses.”

Nagin made the distinction between specific and general deterrence. Specific deterrence focuses on an individual criminal, discouraging future criminal activities by punishing him or her, while general deterrence focuses on crime prevention on a larger scale by making examples of specific criminals.

An example of general deterrence, Nagin says, is when “the threat of knowing that there might be cops around the corner deters you from speeding.”

Nagin studies how the experience of punishment affects recidivism, when criminals lapse back into their law-breaking ways after being punished. Nagin found that specific deterrence does not have the preventative effect people thought, but rather that “either the experience of punishment was perhaps exacerbating recidivism or having no effect — none of it was showing that it had that kind of chastening effect.”

Nagin, who is originally from Pittsburgh, came to Carnegie Mellon for his undergraduate education in the early 1970s. After receiving a degree from what is now the Tepper School of Business, he came back to Carnegie Mellon for a master’s degree, also in business.

Nagin continued his education at Carnegie Mellon with a Ph.D. from what is now Heinz College. He credits his interest in research to his time as an undergraduate. Nagin, hired as an undergraduate research assistant, had the chance to work with prominent Tepper faculty members, including several who would go on to win Nobel prizes, such as Robert Lucas — now at the University of Chicago — and Herbert A. Simon, the late Richard King Mellon university professor of computer science and psychology. His experience doing research as an undergraduate student showed Nagin that he did not want to work in the business world when he graduated. “Just being around these people and interacting with them got me interested in doing research, and not going into the business world,” Nagin said.

In the United States of the 1970s, crime rates were rising. Nagin, a doctoral candidate at the time, wondered if there was a link between national demography — the baby boomers were just reaching their young adult years — and the swell in crime.

According to Nagin, a conversation with Alan Blumstein, J. Erik Jonsson university professor of urban systems, former dean of the Heinz School, and winner of the 2007 Stockholm Prize, drew him into the field of criminology. “At that time, we [baby boomers] were all [teenagers], and it was prime crime-committing age. So I asked Al [Blumstein], to what degree does this rise in crime rates have to do with demography, having a lot of young people — particularly young men — around. And he said, ‘I don’t know; let’s do a research project on it.’ ”

This is not the first time that Nagin has been recognized for his work. Nagin is the incoming editor of Criminology and Public Policy, and has published over 140 peer-reviewed papers in various journals of criminology, sociology, statistics, demography, economics, psychiatry, and psychometrics.

Nagin is also an elected fellow of the American Society of Criminology, and received the organizations Edwin H. Sutherland Award for research contributions in 2006. He is also an elected fellow of the American Society for the Advancement of Science.

Because of his extensive research on deterrence, the U.S. National Research Council asked Nagin to lead its Committee on Deterrence and the Death Penalty in 2012. The committee produced a report detailing their finding; according to an adaptation of the report, “the committee conclude[d] that research to date is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, these studies should not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of death penalty on homicide.”

The work of Nagin and the committee garnered national attention. A 2012 editorial in The New York Times tied the committee’s report to Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy’s decision to sign a state law abolishing the death penalty.

Nagin thinks that his current research could have important policy applications in the future. “There is change afoot, changing attitudes among both liberals and conservatives. I’m more optimistic, in the future, that the political climate will be such that policymakers will actually pay attention to this research.”

Indeed, crime rates in the United States peaked from 1970s to 1990s, and are now declining again. Nagin is sharing the 2014 Stockholm Prize in Criminology with Joan Petersilia of Stanford University. The researchers will be honored for their work at the 2014 Stockholm Criminology Symposium from June 9–14.