How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment

Thanks to Eugene’s generosity, I will have access to this space all week to expound what I see as a great moral and practical imperative:  to put our new knowledge of what controls crime into use, with the goal of achieving “half and half”:  half as much crime and half as many people behind bars in a decade as we have today.  (Here’s the a book-length version of the argument.)


Engineers have a sardonic saying:  “When brute force fails, you’re not using enough.”  For three decades, in the face of the great crime wave that started in the early 1960s, we have been trying to solve our crime problem with brute force:  building more and more prisons and jails. We now keep 2.4 million of our fellow human beings under lock and key at any one time, and that number has continued to grow despite the spectacular drop in crime between 1994 and 2004, which took crime rates to 50% of their peak levels.

Imprisonment at five times the historical level in the United States, and at five times the level of any of the countries with which we would like to compare ourselves, has not been sufficient to fully reverse the growth in crime; current crime rates are still at 2.5 times the level of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Even that discouraging number understates how much worse things are now than they were half a century ago; today’s high crime rates persist in the face not only of ferocious punishment but also of greatly enhanced – and very costly – adaptations by potential victims to avoid being victimized.  Those adaptations range from buying alarm systems to moving to the suburbs.  Most of all, they involve avoiding risky situations.  The need to take such precautions leaves all of us less free than Americans were half a century ago.

The burdens of crime, and of punishment, are not evenly spread across the social landscape.  Homicide is the leading cause of death among black men between 18 and 30 who did not finish high school, and a black male dropout also has a better than even chance of serving prison time before turning 30.   William Stuntz has calculated that the incarceration rate among African-Americans today is higher than the incarceration rate in the Soviet Union the day Stalin died.

Is there an alternative to brute force?  There is reason to think so, and pieces of that alternative approach can be seen working in scattered places throughout the world of crime control. But the first step in getting away from brute force is to want to get away from brute force:  to care more about reducing crime than about punishing criminals, and to be willing to choose safety over vengeance when the two are in tension.

If for a moment we thought about “crime” as something bad that happens to people, like auto accidents or air pollution or disease, rather than as something horrible that people do to each other—if we thought about it, that is, as an ordinary domestic-policy problem—then we could start to ask how to limit the damage crime does at as little cost as possible in money spent and suffering inflicted.

The answer to that question will not be the only factor that influences, or should influence, crime-control policy.  Justice both requires and limits punishment. Laws, customs, and institutional arrangements—including the Constitution and ideas such as “innocent until proven guilty”—limit, and ought to limit, the range of options.   Still, thinking about the advantages and disadvantages—what economists quaintly call “benefits” and “costs” —of different approaches to crime control is one place to start the inquiry.

Crime causes damage: directly to victims, and indirectly as people incur costs, and impose costs on others, to avoid victimization.   The value of the total damage is hard to reckon, but serious estimates (even excluding “white collar” crime) run as high as $1.4 trillion per year:  more than 10 percent of GDP. Furthermore, this damage falls most heavily on the poor and socially marginal people least able to bear it; crime not only concentrates around social disadvantage but also sustains it, increasing costs for consumers and employers alike and thereby driving away resources and opportunities.

One way to frame the general problem of crime-control policy is, “What set of actions would result in the least total harm and cost, from crime and crime-control efforts combined?” Neither across-the-board lenity nor maximum severity offers the right answer to that question.   In order to squeeze the maximum crime prevention benefit from every prisoner-day of incarceration, we need to learn to deliver the minimum effective dose of punishment and to make as much use as possible of convincing and clearly communicated threats rather than actual punishments.

The principles of effective deterrence are straightforward, though making actual institutions implement those principles is complex.  Punishment should be swift and certain rather than severe; those subject to it should know precisely what actions will lead to punishment; efforts should be concentrated, rather than dispersed, to enjoy the benefit of the positive-feedback process in which reduced offending leads to increased deterrence.

Since punishment is always a cost and not a benefit, we should also be alive to the many possibilities to reduce offending without punishment:  everything from a later school day (to shorten the burglary-friendly time period when adolescents are out of school but grown-ups have not returned from work) to removing highly criminogenic environmental lead to sending nurses to visit first-time mothers in need of coaching.

Our current crime rates and our current incarceration levels are national disgraces.  We know how to fix both halves of that problem, and there is no good excuse for not doing so.

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