Whitey Bulger arrested: How does the FBI set rewards for fugitives?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 23 2011 6:58 PM

A $2 Million Criminal

How does the FBI set rewards for fugitives like Whitey Bulger?

James "Whitey" Bulger.
James "Whitey" Bulger

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested James "Whitey" Bulger on Wednesday night, nearly 16 years after the legendary Boston mob boss disappeared. The agency had offered $2 million for information leading to Bulger's arrest, and $100,000 for tips leading to the capture of his girlfriend. How does the FBI determine fugitive rewards?

Based on notoriety, mostly. Unsurprisingly, the agency generally reserves the highest amounts for the most dangerous criminals and those wanted for the most egregious offenses. But there's no equation used to figure out precisely how much is necessary to entice tipsters. The FBI's 56 field offices decide which fugitives need price tags and can set the bounty themselves up to $20,000. (The lowest recent FBI reward the Explainer could locate was $500, such as the one offered in 2009 for tips leading to a  Pittsburgh-area bank robber.) If they believe more money is needed, they must get approval from FBI headquarters; rewards of $250,000 or larger also require the attorney general's support.

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The minimum reward for members of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list is also the most common amount: $100,000. The $2 million reward on Bulger, wanted for his role in 19 murders, was the  highest the FBI had ever offered  for a domestic fugitive. (Bulger was also the  oldest fugitive placed on the list; he was 69 when he became a top-tenner in August 1999.) Much higher rewards, like the $25 million offered for Bin Laden, can be placed on foreign terrorists through the State Department-funded Rewards for Justice program.

Do the rewards work? It's unclear, since little, if any, academic work has been published on the topic. But insofar as rewards increase publicity, they might be effective. A 2005 study in the Journal of Law and Economics found that men on the lam were roughly seven times as likely to be caught in the month after being profiled by the television show America's Most Wanted as unprofiled fugitives. Likewise, the agency says Bulger's capture was a "direct result" of a days-old publicity campaign geared toward finding Bulger's girlfriend, which noted her predilection for plastic surgery. Simultaneously with the campaign, the agency doubled the bounty on Bulger's girlfriend from $50,000 to $100,000.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Susan McKee and Brad Bryant of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Thomas J. Miles of the University of Chicago Law School.

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