Collidoscope: Of Bank Robberies, Lost Documents and Punishment

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

I had my laptop stolen recently and that has (semi-consciously) created a theme for this week’s newsletter.


Robbing a bank in Italy

The entrance of Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank's headquarters in Siena, Italy. Credit: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

The entrance of Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank’s headquarters in Siena, Italy. Credit: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

I had no idea, but apparently bank robberies are a big thing in Italy. There are close to 3,000 bank robberies every year – and with 30,000 bank branches, that means a branch has a 10% chance of getting robbed in a particular year. If I were an Italian bank manager, or employee or customer, I wouldn’t like those odds.

The Italian Banking Association seems to recognise the problem, because they keep detailed records of all the robberies – how long it took, how much was taken, whether an arrest was made, how many robbers there were, the kind of security the bank had, and so on.

Economists Giovanni Mastrobuoni and David A. Rivers of the University of Essex and the University of Western Ontario, respectively, have analysed this data – from nearly 5,000 robberies across two years – to “study the interplay between criminals and criminal law”. The questions they’re interested in include why robbers chose a particular bank, how they decided how much time to spend in there, how likely they were to be arrested, and, most importantly, what could have deterred them.

They then come up with a complicated model to explain what determines whether it is worth it for a robber in Italy to attempt to rob a particular bank. There’s a lot that goes into it  – the expected haul, the individual’s personality, the kinds of risks they’re prone to taking and the opportunity cost of prison are some of the factors they take into account. (The final function they come up with looks something like this: V(t)=[1−Pr(Tp <t)]E[U(W +Y(t),δ)]+Pr(Tp <t)(W,d,S,δ) – like I said, it’s complicated, but their results are intuitive and can be understood easily.)

One of the things Mastrobuoni and Rivers don’t have data on is the ability of individual robbers. This factor, they feel, is key to understanding both crimes and how to deter them. And even though they don’t have the data, they use other details like the amount stolen, time taken, etc. to divide the robbers into two broad groups: those who are good at what they do and those who aren’t, basically.

“Using information on the observed robbery duration we estimate individual-specific values of the compensating variation of imprisonment. We find evidence of large differences across offenders. Our estimates provide strong evidence that unobserved ability of robbers leads to systematically better outcomes for these offenders: larger hauls and lower arrest probabilities. We also find that higher ability offenders have a larger disutility of prison, potentially due to the opportunity cost of being incarcerated.”

So according to them, more skilled thieves have basically found their calling – they can get a lot of money in a short amount of time and are less likely to be caught. And so crime is probably the most lucrative profession for them. For these thieves, the authors suggest, a longer prison term is probably the best deterrence. For thieves who are not quite as efficient, though, it might not be too late to convince them to take up another line of work, since they’re probably not making much money and are caught more often. So for them, an expansion of educational and skill development programmes may actually work better than prison sentences.

For me, bank robberies are romanticised crimes that basically happen only in movies, using intelligent, innovative means (I’m thinking The Inside Man). It was strange to read Mastrobuoni and Rivers, who make it sound almost mundane, everyday – but then who can blame them when they have an easy sample size of 5,000?


Lost intellectual treasures

Engraving from the Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) showing Naples apothecary Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, the first pictorial representation of such a collection. Courtesy: Public Domain Review

Engraving from the Dell’Historia Naturale (1599) showing Naples apothecary Ferrante Imperato’s cabinet of curiosities, the first pictorial representation of such a collection. Courtesy: Public Domain Review

When you have a computer (or any other device) stolen today, the main loss is the computer itself. You’re unlikely to have lost anything else – documents, photographs, anything. And if you didn’t have backup of some sort, people will probably look at you and shake their heads in a “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t very smart of you” way.

But what about a time when there was no such thing? Even when I was younger, I remember the panic it caused for my parents when floppies crashed – or got ‘corrupted’, to be precise. And for centuries before that, if someone lost say a manuscript, that’s exactly what it was – lost.

In an article in the Public Domain Review, Claire Preston explores the Musaeum Clausum (or the hidden library) of Thomas Browne, a 17th-century English polymath. This book is an inventory of “remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living”. Browne’s list is a mix of humorous, eccentric and wistful. According to Preston, his preoccupation with all the treasures he would never see was understandable – while his list was made up, he lived in a time where in many cases losing something precious was not only a personal loss but a societal one. He also wasn’t alone in this kind of imagining, others had attempted similar, if less famous, catalogues of things that probably never existed. Preston explains one the reasons why:

“The great library of the Ptolemies at Alexandria was burnt by the Romans in the first century AD, a legendary collection of ancient wisdom whose loss haunted Renaissance scholarship. European savants of the 15th and 16th centuries were, in the midst of their astonishing revival of classical writing, all too aware of what was irrecoverable and even unknown to them.”

While some of Browne’s imagined items are clearly meant for comic relief (like “an account of Hannibal’s expedition through Alps ‘far more particular than that of Livy’ that purports to tell what sort of vinegar he used to split the stones in his way”), Preston writes, a lot of it also points to his scholarship, his skill and his recognition that there may be many things out there that he’ll just never get to see. “Browne, although he recognises the absurdity of some of his own items and is obviously trying for comic effect with certain ones, is probably more interested in a philosophy of antiquities, of the past and of existing knowledge as resurrected and preserved from the ravages of time and forgetfulness. Browne’s aim, like that of the early-modern Baconians, was reparation and restoration of truth, and Musaeum Clausum reads like a wistful evocation of what might have existed in a legendary collection like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina,” she writes.

Would this kind of exercise interest anyone today? It’s hard to say. While there are probably just as many (if not more) fascinating books, pictures and objects that we’ll never get to see, Preston suggests that the preoccupation came from the fear and impact of loss that people felt. And it’s possible that for many people when that fear died, the curiosity of what else had been lost died with it?


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Punishing criminals

The Supreme Court of India. Credit: Reuters

The Supreme Court of India. Credit: Reuters

In the small off chance that a thief is caught in India, what happens? And the larger question is, how do courts in India sentence convicted criminals?

That’s what Srijoni Sen and Sakshi of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy are looking at in a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly. And according to them, the system is far too arbitrary and dependent of an individual’s discretion for comfort. This problem, they argue, doesn’t end with creating a sentencing policy for the judiciary.

For both central and state governments, creating laws that prescribe heavy punishment is seen as a way to prove that they’re doing something about a particular problem. According to the authors,

“If one takes a short-term view of the matter, some of these increases in penalties seem justified; they are attempts to deter wrongs that cause significant societal harm. However, the growing trend of indiscriminate increases in the maximum penalties prescribed leaves us with troubling questions around the meanings of punishment.”

While several judges have recognised the problem, for them it stops with the judiciary. But given this mood in lawmaking, the authors argue, parliament needs to be involved too. Legislation has more and more been limiting the kinds of punishments to prison sentences, fines and, in some cases, the death penalty. The judiciary is not encouraged t give sentences that also take into account rehabilitation.

There are several problems that exist with sentencing policy in India today, the authors point out. The first is that stringent laws that have serious punishments often depend on the mood of the state and not the logics of criminal law, as is being seen in the cattle slaughter debate. Second, there are new laws created that give (sometimes justified) harsher punishments, but these clash with old laws that prescribe barely any repercussions. Third, there are state-level inconsistencies in prescribed punishments for the same crime, even when the intent behind the law is the same. And fourth, legislative guidance provided to the judiciary is “woefully inadequate”. Judges are often not told enough about what outcomes the legislature is expecting when making a certain law or what the intent behind it is. All of these, the authors argue, form a part of the larger problem:

“The penal system in India operates around the assumption that an appropriate response to “crime” is a higher sentence in law. Punishments are expressed only as terms of imprisonment, the length of which correspond (imperfectly, as shown above) to the alleged gravity of the offence. … However, at the stage of determining a “just punishment,” the legislature is also required to incorporate values of reformation, reintegration, and consequences of punishment to the society.”

As a first step to dealing with this problem, the authors suggest creating a repository of how judges across the country are sentencing similar crimes. This can then help in setting a standard, accompanied by discussions that place importance on rehabilitation as well.

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