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The Open Philanthropy Blog
September 25, 2017
This is the first in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.
About when Chloe Cockburn joined Open Philanthropy to spearhead our grantmaking for criminal justice reform, I was tasked with reviewing the research on whether reducing the number of people in American jails and prisons might actually increase crime. In effect, we at Open Philanthropy asked ourselves: what if we’re wrong? What if our grantees win reforms that cut the number of people behind bars, and that pushes the crime rate up? How likely is that? And how likely is it that any increase would be large enough to overshadow the benefits of decarceration, which include taxpayer savings and expanded human freedom?
It may seem strange to launch a grantmaking program even as we question its empirical basis. But Open Philanthropy had already invested significant time in studying criminal justice reform as a cause. And practical decisions must always be made in the face of incomplete information, forcing people and organizations to exercise what Herbert Simon called “bounded rationality.” It can be boundedly rational to act on the information gathered so far, even as we gather more.
The final report reaches two major conclusions:
- I estimate that, at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration has zero net impact on crime outside of prison. That estimate is uncertain, but at least as much evidence suggests that decarceration reduces crime as increases it. The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, “tough-on-crime” initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run.
- Empirical social science research—or at least non-experimental social science research—should not be taken at face value. Among three dozen studies I reviewed, I obtained or reconstructed the data and code for eight. Replication and reanalysis revealed significant methodological concerns in seven and led to major reinterpretations of four. These studies endured much tougher scrutiny from me than they did from peer reviewers in order to make it into academic journals. Yet given the stakes in lives and dollars, the added scrutiny was worth it. So from the point of view of decision makers who rely on academic research, today’s peer review processes fall well short of the optimal.
The rest of this post elaborates on those conclusions.Read More
September 24, 2017
This is the second in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.
As I explain in the intro post, in thinking about how incarceration affects crime rates, it is useful to distinguish between “before,” “during,” and “after” effects. The “before” effects of incarceration are deterrence: the prospect of jail or prison time may dissuade people from committing crime. Surely this must happen to some extent, but how much at current policy margins, is a question for research. The experimental and quasi-experimental studies I read and reproduced mostly said: not much.
Below, I review research on:
- Laws criminalizing driving under the influence of alcohol;
- a mass prison sentence suspension in Italy;
- whether young people commit less crime as they obtain the age of criminal majority, when they first face the risk of adult-level sanctions;
- California’s severe “Three Strikes and You’re Out” sentencing law;
- laws adopted in many states to increase minimum sentences for various crimes, or lengthen sentences for crimes involving guns.
For the last two, I obtained the data and computer code for the relevant studies and analyzed them afresh.Read More
September 23, 2017
This is the third in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.
In my deterrence post, I explained why, in my reading, the research says that stiffer sentencing hardly deters crime in this country today.
In this post, I move from the “before” of incarceration to the “during,” what criminologists call “incapacitation.” Does putting more people in prison markedly reduce crime outside prison walls—at least while those people are still in prison? I think that in writing my full report, I approached the research on this question with just as much skepticism as I did with deterrence. Yet the incapacitation research better withstood my scrutiny. I am convinced that decarceration on the scale proponents hope for measurably increases crime in the short run. (It may do the opposite in the long run, by reducing exposure to the potentially criminogenic influences of prison; my next post investigates that possibility.)
I found six studies that met my criterion of exploiting an experiment or a strong natural experiment. One takes place in Italy, one in the Netherlands, and the rest in the United States. I will briefly describe four, and say more about the two U.S. ones whose data and code availability allowed for replication and reanalysis.Read More
September 22, 2017
This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.
The two other in-depth posts in this series share what I learned about the incarceration’s “before” effect, deterrence of crime, and the “during” effect, which is called “incapacitation.” In sum, in the current U.S. policy context, I doubt deterrence and believe in incapacitation.
Going by the analysis so far, rolling back mass incarceration would increase crime. But that tally is incomplete. This post turns to the “after” effects of crime, which I call, cleverly, “aftereffects.” Unlike deterrence and incapacitation, even the overall sign of aftereffects cannot be determined from general principles. Having been in jail or prison could “rehabilitate” you or “harden” you into greater criminality.
The traditionally favored term for aftereffects, “specific deterrence,” captures the idea that doing time viscerally strengthens the fear of punishment and deters people from reoffending. The corrections system corrects. Penitentiaries elicit penitence. No doubt, those things do often happen. And prisons do good in other ways. Some help people off of addictive substances, teach job and life skills, or improve literacy and self-control.
However, the prison experience can also manufacture criminality. It can alienate people from society, giving them less psychological stake in its rules. It can make people better criminals by bringing them together to learn from each other. It can strengthen their allegiances to gangs whose reach extends into prisons. While some may get drug treatment, others may not, even as they suffer through withdrawal or preserve access to drugs. And incarceration can permanently mark people in the eyes of employers, making it hard to find legal work.
My review includes 15 aftereffects studies. Six conclude that more time (or time in harsher conditions) leads to less crime, eight that it leads to more crime. One study is neutral, but it involves sentences of only a day or two, for drunk driving. If we give each study one vote, then the view that prison generally increases criminality wins, narrowly. Of course, all the studies could be correct for their setting, since the prison experience varies from place to place. Bearing in mind the potential for diversity, it is still worth searching for a consensus view, as the basis for a first-order generalization about the likely impacts of decarceration nationwide. In fact, I think closer inspection of the literature tends to strengthen the view that in the U.S. today, aftereffects are typically harmful. Some reasons:
- Of the six studies in the minority, two come from Georgia; their results appear explicable by a statistical artifact I have christened “parole bias.”
- Another is set in California nearly a half century ago, before retribution overturned rehabilitation as the dominant philosophy of corrections in the U.S.
- A study set in contemporary Seattle appears to suffer from baseline imbalance, meaning that the treatment and control groups differed from beginning.
- One study in the minority looks compelling, yet is set in Norway, which appears to be much more committed to rehabilitating inmates than most American prisons (see this, this).
(The sixth looks at the impact of up to a month’s detention on juvenile offenders in Washington state. I find no serious problems with it.)
I also discovered reasons to doubt some of the studies in the majority. For example, I noticed baseline imbalance in a randomized trial that put some inmates in higher-security prison. And in the study I’ll detail next, the quasi-experiment looks imperfect.
Nevertheless a substantial family of studies coalesces around the finding that when incapacitation and aftereffects are measured in the same setting, the first is offset by the second, over time. That is to say: putting someone in prison cuts crime in the short run but increases it in the long run, on net.Read More
September 15, 2017
Over the last two years, animal welfare organizations successfully secured pledges from major restaurants and grocers to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, which are collectively expected to bring cage-free housing from ~13% of the domestic egg supply to ~70% when fully implemented. We have been the largest funder of these campaigns.
In our blog post announcing our support for these campaigns, we claimed that cage-free systems were much better than battery cages for hen welfare, based on initial research conducted by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Lewis briefly argued against a memorandum by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) which claimed the opposite. This disagreement was further explored in a series of comments written by Lewis and Wayne Hsiung of DxE.
We left that discussion unsatisfied with our knowledge about the evidence on hen welfare in different housing systems, and I (Ajeya Cotra) conducted a more thorough investigation – the full report can be found here. My findings were, in short:Read More
June 26, 2017
One of the challenges of large-scale philanthropy is: how can a small number of decision-maker(s) (e.g., donors) find a large number of giving opportunities that they understand well enough to feel good about funding?
Most of the organizations I’ve seen seem to use some combination of project-based, people-based, and process-based approaches to delegation. To illustrate these, I’ll use the hypothetical example of a grant to fund research into new malaria treatments. I use the term “Program Officers” to refer to the staff primarily responsible for making recommendations to decision-makers.
These different classifications can also be useful in thinking about how Program Officers relate to grantees. Program Officers can recommend grants based on being personally convinced of a particular project; recommend grants based primarily on the people involved, deferring heavily on the details of those people’s plans; or recommend grants based on processes that they set up to capture certain criteria.
This post discusses how I currently see the pros and cons of each, and what our current approach is. In large part, we find the people-based approach ideal for the kind of hits-based giving we’re focused on. But we use elements of project-based evaluation (and to a much lesser degree, process-based evaluation) as well - largely in order to help us better evaluate people over time.Read More
June 21, 2017
In 2015, I researched and wrote about the risk to industrial society from geomagnetic storms—terrestrial phenomena that, despite their name, originate on the sun. Mild storms give us the ineffable beauty of the Northern Lights, and the Southern Lights too. Severe geomagnetic maelstroms might, some fear, knock out key satellites or cause continent-wide blackouts that would take months to undo.
I concluded that the risk had been exaggerated in the studies that gained the most attention. Still, given the potential stakes and the historical neglect of the problem, the issue deserved more attention from people in science, business, and government.
As I wrapped up my investigation, I tripped on a question of statistical method that I did not have time to fully explore. I have since put more time into the question. I just finalized a working paper about the results and submitted it to a journal. The upshot for the geomagnetic storm investigation is that I have modified my methods for extrapolating storm risks from the historical record. As a result, I have raised my best estimate of the chance of a really big storm, like the storied one of 1859, from 0.33% to 0.70% per decade. And I have expanded my 95% confidence interval for this estimate from 0.0–4.0% to 0.0–11.6% per decade.
More explanation follows.Read More
June 12, 2017
Over a year ago, we started exploring options for spinning the Open Philanthropy Project out from GiveWell as an independent organization. Though the process took a bit longer than we had hoped, the new legal arrangement took effect on June 1.
This post covers the evolution of the Open Philanthropy Project into an independent entity, and the reasons for the spin-out from our perspective. It also discusses why we’re operating the Open Philanthropy Project as an LLC, and what our relationship to GiveWell will be going forward. (For some more technical details on the transaction, see the GiveWell post here.)
This transition has been in motion for some time, and we expect that the bulk of our operations will appear unchanged to outsiders.Read More
June 6, 2017
As we’ve written previously, we aim to extend empathy to every being that warrants moral concern, including animals. And while many experts, government agencies, and advocacy groups agree that some animals live lives worthy of moral concern, there seems to be little agreement on which animals warrant moral concern. Hence, to inform our long-term giving strategy, I’ve prepared a new report on the following question: “In general, which types of beings merit moral concern?” Or, to phrase the question as some philosophers do, “Which beings are moral patients?”
For this preliminary investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.
In the long run, to make well-grounded decisions about how much we should value grants aimed at (e.g.) chicken or fish welfare, we need to form initial impressions not just about which creatures are more and less likely to be conscious, but also about (a) other plausible criteria for moral patienthood besides consciousness, and also about (b) the question of “moral weight.” However, those two questions are beyond the scope of this initial report on consciousness. In the future I hope to build on the initial framework and findings of this report, and come to some initial impressions about other criteria for moral patienthood and about moral weight.
My goals for this report on consciousness and moral patienthood were to:Read More
April 26, 2017
As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, I recently investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy.
The full report includes brief case studies of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy. My key takeaways are:
- Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.
- Fields vary hugely along several dimensions, including (1) primary sources of funding (e.g. large philanthropists, many small donors, governments, companies), (2) whether engaged philanthropists were “active” or “passive” in their funding strategy, and (3) how much the growth of the field can be attributed to endogenous factors (e.g. explicit movement-building work) vs. exogenous factors (e.g. changing geopolitical conditions).