Tag Archives: deterrence

Crime and (Kneejerk) Punishment

How many times have discussions on this blog–as well as others–focused on stupid laws? The drug war (especially marijuana prohibition) is one of the biggest offenders, having ruined countless lives, but everyone has his or her favorite example.

The litany is familiar: who thinks up these rules? Who thought X was a good idea? Why didn’t anyone consider the adverse consequences?

Well, if we want to know what prompts lawmakers to suggest and pass costly measures ranging from irrelevant to unworkable, we have a perfect case study unfolding right before our eyes in Indianapolis.

Our City is experiencing a serious crime wave. There are a number of explanations–and a lot of excuses–for our public safety problem, ranging from insufficient police presence to poverty to administrative incompetence, and it’s likely that all are implicated, along with social pathologies that resist easy answers.

So what are our intrepid lawmakers suggesting? Longer prison sentences for the people we manage to arrest! A quick fix. Easy to understand measures that will allow said lawmakers to boast that they “did something.”

Of course, the “something” they propose to do flies in the face of years of criminal justice research.

Here’s the thing: when we are trying to deter intentional crime (i.e., not a “crime of passion” committed by someone who acted out of a lack of self-control or often, lack of cognitive capacity), research confirms that what is effective is not the severity of the potential punishment–it is the certainty of that punishment. If an individual is considering engaging in a criminal act for which the punishment is 30 years in prison but the chances of getting caught are less than 5%, he’s very likely to go for it. If, on the other hand, the punishment is only 5 years but the likelihood of being caught is 95%, he’s much more likely to rethink it.

As the odds of being punished grow, so does the deterrence.

If we respond to the current crime wave by increasing the severity of punishment, our prison system will just cost taxpayers even more than it does now.

As H.L. Mencken memorably noted, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

 

Death and Taxes

These days, those of us who follow policy debates are suffering from overload: same-sex marriage, immigration policy, foreign policy—not to mention the re-emergence of pocketbook issues like collective bargaining rights—are generating lots of heat, if distressingly little light.

And then, of course, there are the perennial complaints about taxes.

Everyone, it seems, wants government to cost less–until someone suggests cuts to our particular sacred cows. In Washington, we see lawmakers eager to de-fund Planned Parenthood and NPR become livid when someone suggests cutting military spending. Here in Indiana, an eminently reasonable proposal by Governor Daniels and the Chief Justice to incarcerate fewer nonviolent offenders and save the billions of tax dollars that we would otherwise spend building additional prisons has been eviscerated by defenders of “law and order.”

In fact, the criminal justice system offers one of the best opportunities to save significant tax dollars, beginning with abolition of the death penalty.

People have different opinions about the morality of capital punishment, and I leave those arguments to ethicists and theologians. There are, however, some pretty compelling practical and fiscal arguments for abolition.

As a practical matter, years of scholarship have confirmed that capital punishment is not a deterrent. In 2009, states with the death penalty had murder rates of 5.2 per 100,000 residents; in states without, the rate was 3.9—a 35% difference. Police agree. In a recent poll, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime; they also considered it the least efficient use of taxpayer money, and complained that it diverted money from more effective crime control measures.

Which brings us to the fiscal issues.

In 2010, Legislative Services analyzed capital punishment costs in Indiana, and determined that the average cost of a capital trial and direct appeal was 449,000–over ten times the 42,658 cost of a life-without-parole case.  In California, taxpayers pay 114,000,000 more each year than it would cost to keep those same offenders imprisoned for life. In Kansas, capital cases are 70% more expensive than non-capital cases, even including the costs of lifelong incarceration. In Texas, a death penalty case costs three times what it would cost to imprison someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Advocates of the death penalty often complain that the higher costs are a result of “interminable appeals,” but that isn’t actually true. Appeals do add costs, but a capital trial is very expensive. Cells on death row and extra staff cost more.

We could eliminate appeals and execute people immediately upon conviction. That would save money. Unfortunately, such a proposal raises another pesky problem we have with capital punishment—the fact that we convict innocent people. Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row because they were found to be innocent. These were not folks freed on a “technicality,” they were people wrongfully convicted.

One of those people will be in Indianapolis on April 14th. Randy Steidl will speak at the IUPUI Campus Center at 7 p.m. about the 17 years he spent on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Randy comes from a law-abiding middle-class family; his brother is a retired State Trooper. His story is troubling, to say the least: there was evidence of the sort of police and prosecutorial misconduct that—more often than we might like to think—accompanies the rush to solve high-profile murders.

As Steidl says, “If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”

I guess that’s one of those “moral” arguments I said I wasn’t going to make.