Crime and Effective Enforcement

+ Kari Kohn

Mark Kleiman’s piece, “Smart on Crime,” in the spring Democracy issue is filled not just with information about crime but also solutions for enforcement.  His primary argument:

I argue that (blue-collar) crime—theft and assault, in all their varieties—is still a real and major problem; that its economic and social costs are vastly under-appreciated; that its primary victims are disadvantaged minorities and poor people; that the current criminal-justice system wrongs them by under-enforcing the law against those who victimize them (who are, of course, mostly people like them in racial and class terms); that better criminal-justice policy could give us less crime and less incarceration; and that better and more equal law enforcement ought therefore to be as central a progressive political goal as better and more equal education or health care.

He explains that crime tends to be geographically concentrated and that crime is very costly, not just to the victims but also to those who don’t feel safe and those who don’t have the financial means to relocate from unsafe places.

Geographically concentrated crime also corrodes social ties at the individual and neighborhood levels; it is both a cause and an effect of distrust. And it feeds on itself in other ways as well. Since enforcement tends to be less concentrated than criminal activity, criminal behavior is safer where there is a lot of it, and both the opportunities for gainful licit activity are fewer and the gains from such activity less secure. Living in chaos makes people more present-oriented and less averse to risk, two characteristics that make crime, with its immediate and certain gains and its deferred and uncertain losses, appear more attractive. Little wonder crime is so heavily concentrated, that those concentrations are so stable over time, and that it concentrates among those otherwise worst off.

Kleiman then lays the groundwork for possible enforcement solutions, focusing first on the motivations of criminals:

If you’re looking for a single “root cause” of crime, look no further: The cause is bad decision-making by offenders. And the solution must lie in some combination of improving that decision-making process and devising deterrent threats that actually deter reckless, impulsive, short-term-oriented people, which the current regime of randomized draconian responses so dramatically fails to do.

Kleiman advocates swift and certain but reasonably mild punishment.

If punishment is swift and certain, it need not be severe to be efficacious. If punishment is uncertain and delayed, it will not be efficacious even if it is severe…

Not only is severity an inadequate substitute for swiftness and certainty, it actually interferes with them. The more severe a punishment is, the more due process (leading to delay) is required to impose it, and (if severity is measured in sentence length) the less often it can be imposed before the prisons fill up. Unfortunately, increasing severity is easy for a legislature or sentencing commission to accomplish; increasing swiftness and certainty—for example, by adding police and improving police operations—is more complicated, especially given the need to balance intrusiveness against crime-control benefits, as in the case of New York’s sometimes overaggressive “stop-and-frisk” tactics.

Kleiman applies the logic of “swift-and-certain sanctions” in outlining parole reforms. Most parolees are subject to a potentially confusing array of rules—rules that are loosely monitored and not necessarily useful in reducing recidivism. With loose monitoring, parolees amass violations until the system has no choice but to put them back behind bars.

…It’s as if the system were deliberately creating a trap for the poorly self-controlled people subject to it.

…The obvious (but hard-to-administer) common-sense alternative is to make the rules less numerous, the monitoring tighter, and the sanctions swift, certain, and reasonably mild, and to clearly tell each probationer and parolee exactly what the rules are and what exactly will happen, every time and right away, when a rule is broken. Mildness—or proportionality, if you like—is essential to making the threat credible, and severity turns out to be unnecessary. Experimental evidence from the HOPE program in Hawaii showed that two days in jail is as good a deterrent to drug use as six weeks, as long as the two days actually happen, and happen every time…

…Not only does swift-and-certain sanctioning succeed in changing the behavior of people with deficient self-command; there is some evidence—not nearly conclusive, but intriguing—that it may actually change the entire behavioral style of many clients by showing them that they do in fact have the capacity to manage their habits. That in turn increases the characteristic psychologists call “self-efficacy”—a person’s belief that he can exert control—which is a strong predictor of success in any attempt at behavior change, from quitting smoking to learning to restrain one’s anger.

Lastly, Kleiman suggests some additional measures to use in connection with “swift-and-certain sanctions.”

Meanwhile, GPS tracking makes pinpointing an offender’s location as easy—though not quite as cheap—as monitoring his drug use. That would allow the enforcement of curfews and stay-away orders, deter re-offending, and make the person wearing a monitor unwelcome in group criminal activity.

The combination of drug testing and position monitoring with swift-and-certain sanctioning could deliver most of the incapacitative effect of a prison cell at a fraction of the cost, and a still-smaller fraction of the suffering. Some proportion—perhaps a large one—of those currently behind bars could be safely released under those conditions.

It is refreshing to read an argument that offers law enforcement solutions, which if done correctly, could provide many societal benefits at a lower financial cost (true equal protection under the law, improved public safety, effective rehabilitation of offenders, etc.).

Tile image by Michael Glogowski-Walldorf.

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