Small Stakes for Juvenile Crime

+ Jonathan Stewart

In a previous post, Paul Romer wrote that small stakes with high probabilities of punishment can better influence crime rates than large stakes with low probabilities of occuring. In that post, he argued that “...holding P [the the probability that someone who commits a crime will be caught and punished] x C [the cost C of the punishment suffered by someone who is caught] constant, crime is more effectively deterred when lower stakes, in the sense of a smaller value for C, are combined with the higher probability P of being caught.” The juvenile justice system may be learning that sometimes lowering C can reduce crime even without a corresponding increase in P.

A recent article in the New York Times discusses new efforts in schools around Fort Lauderdale, FL, to move away from the zero tolerance (high C) response to crimes committed by students. Previously, these students would be punished using harsh measures such as suspensions, expulsions, and formals arrests tied to their permanent records. Time out of school, however, often means more time on the streets or in troubled homes, which might actually increase the probability that the problem behavior continues or gets worse.  Now, many schools are "choosing to keep law-breaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and offering them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior.” The lower punishments "do not apply to students who commit felonies or pose a danger.” Students who commit relatively minor crimes may be sent to counseling, community service, or in-school programs to address their behavior.  "Repeat offenders get several chances to change their behavior before more punitive measures kick in.”

That the low stakes include “punishments” directed toward changing behavior may be especially important for juveniles during their formative years. However, simply having a mechanism for punishing juveniles that does not hinder heir development and potential is also critical. Young people, and humans in general, are famously loath to learn from the mistakes of their peers and elders. Small stakes can allow young people to better understand the risks of their behavior and the probability that they will be caught and punished. Less severe punishments, or even counseling and remedial programming, will not correct the behavior of all juveniles who commit crimes. However, some, having found and tested the line, may retreat safely inside its borders.

Tile image courtesy of Lai Ryanne.

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