Mandatory military service significantly increases both the likelihood of crime and the number of crimes committed by young men aged 23-30. Serving in the military also increases the chance of post-service conviction by 32%.

These are the findings of new research by Randi Hjalmarsson and Matthew Lindquist, published in the August 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, which challenges the idea that military service can “straighten out” troubled young men. Instead, they argue, it compounds pre-existing behavioural problems.

Drawing on evidence from Sweden, the authors focus on the criminal behaviour of men born in the 1970s. They also find that:

  • These results are mainly driven by those from disadvantaged groups and those who have pre-service criminal histories.
  • They are driven by more serious offenses including weapons, violence, theft, drugs and alcohol.

While the study does show that military service does ‘incapacitate’ those with prior criminal histories, by keeping them engaged and isolated from society, the post-service results suggest it is not enough to remove this high-risk population from a path of future crime.

According to the study, military service also negatively impacts the job prospects of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, but positively affects those from advantaged backgrounds. Therefore, post-service outcomes may mediate part of the effect of military service on crime.

They also show a peer effect on post-service crime, where disadvantaged individuals with pre-service criminal histories are concentrated together in units during conscription. They argue that this may be the main channel through which military service increases crime.

The researchers conclude with two policy suggestions for the re-introduction of military service in Sweden in 2018. In the new draft regime, the Swedish military will consider at least four young men and women for every position that needs to be filled. They argue that this will give them a large enough pool of potential conscripts to avoid sorting all low socio-economic status (SES) individuals into one job and all high SES individuals into another. The military could try to avoid hiring “bad apples” altogether or, at the very least, avoid putting them all into the same barrel.

Secondly, the authors say that the Swedish military could work together with the conscripts’ own union organisation to provide post-service job placement and/or study counselling services, thereby dampening the negative effects of service on disadvantaged youths who appear to have a harder time getting a solid foothold in the labour market after serving in the military.

'The Causal Effect of Military Conscription on Crime' by Randi Hjalmarsson and Matthew Lindquist will be published in the August 2019 issue of The Economic Journal

Randi Hjalmarsson

Professor of Economics at University of Gothenburg

Matthew Lindquist

Professor of Economics at SOFI, Stockholm University