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.


  1. Sheila; this is certainly a timely post for me personally. I was mugged and robbed in my driveway at 11:00 in the morning on April 21st. My purse with all identity, financial and medical information was stolen along with many personal items. The 47 year old mugger and his his 27 year old driver were arrested the following week along with their friend who was driving them at the time they robbed their 4th victim. I was victim number 3 and the youngest, one week before my 77th birthday, the oldest victim is 90 years old, she was the 2nd victim. A witness provided the license plate number, description of car and both occupants to police immediately. They were identified, home address known along with their criminal histories. Supposedly, undercover police began following them that day but I was mugged 4 days later and the undercover officers, while “watching” the car with the attackers, didn’t see them attack and rob victim number 4. The night of April 21st, Mark and Lindsey Jones rented a room at Knight’s Inn at 21st and Shadeland (paying cash); on undercover officer rented the room next to their’s to “watch” them. This information was in the court documents which Yvonne Man, newscaster at local Fox News 59 provided to me. There have been 2 detectives that I know of investigating this case. Two deputy prosecutors came to my home to pick up information regarding fraudulent use of my VISA which the bank sent me…detective number 1 had not given it to the prosecutor’s office for some reason.

    Another deputy prosecutor has been assigned and contacted me by mail sending the letter to an incorrect address. The letter notified me that the address was incorrect and to please provide correct information. Fortunately my mail carrier recognized my name and delivered the mail. My correct address was provided to any and everyone who needed it and was listed in all documents. I had included my E-mail address in my original letter with information that I am deaf and disabled and have no way to get to court. The deputy prosecutor responded by E-mail telling me that she and her paralegal “might come out to chat with me” and would “come up with a system to quetion me in court.” I do not sign or read lips but…am I the first deaf, disabled crime victim in Marion County that they need to “come up with a system” to question me? One of the many people I have spoken to said transportation to court can be provided. The trial has been set for April 21st, I received 3 subpeonas threatening arrest if I don’t appear. I have not been contacted since May 29th regarding a deposition, transportation, questioning in court or if the court date has been changed. They are “looking into” the issue of charging them with fraud for my credit cards being fraudulently used 8 times the day I was mugged. I have received no answer to my question about charging the man with assault due to my injuries which were highly televised locally for over a week on 3 channels. The prosecutor said they would send a Release of Information for me to sign so they can get my medical records from Methodist Hospital ER – I have not yet received this Release form. The trial date I was given is a week from today and nothing has been done to prepare me nor have I received any information whatsoever since May 29th. Are the other three elderly victims being treated this way? I am especially concerned about the 90 year old victim who was elbowed in the face while sitting in the drive-through lane at Steak and Shake. She could’t even move to duck the blow or get out of his way; I was in a postion to try to hang onto my purse.

    Maybe we don’t need more public safety officers at all levels – maybe we need BETTER public safety officers. Yes; I am aware of the unconsionable murder rate and other crimes in this city – I am deeply concerned about the entire issue of crime in Indianapolis. If criminals are not being charged with all crimes committed, this increases the chances they will be back on the streets soon looking for other victims. So far, according to court documents, Mark Jones, LIndsey Jones and Robert Morris (the friend driving them during 4th attack) have each been charged with one count of Robbery and one count of Fraud. I alone should qualify for 8 counts of fraud and 1 count of assault. There was later another 79 year old, wheelchair bound man a victim of home invasion attack and robbery. To me, not only as victim number 3, attacking the elderly is barely above child molestation.

  2. The folks that run Indiana LIKE long terms because they are in bed with the folks that make big money by keeping people in prison. Always follow the money. Our prisons make a few people a LOT of money. Sad

  3. I did receive an E-mail in response to the one I sent the deputy prosecutor on Friday. There will be a pre-trial conference on Wednesday where a continuance will probably be requested – so what else is new. The explanation as to why they cannot be charged with all crimes they committed is that the description of the Robbery charge covers everything – rather like a coverall Bingo game. I didn’t expect the trial to be next Monday, the system moves slowly…if it moves at all. I was told it could be 9 months to a year till trial; hope all we old folks live to see it happen:)

  4. One of the factors known to correlate with high crime is greater wealth inequity. Not surprising. Can you imagine watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” when you’re trying to live on minimum wage?

    That’s not to excuse crime in any way. The cost to society of catching, prosecuting, and “rehabilitating” criminals is huge, but necessary in all societies.

    The only solution is education and a healthy job market. But, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    How about if we qualified people for parenting using the same standards now used for adopting pets?

    Unfortunately, substandard business leaders have found that turning the country into a third world banana republic gets them richer quicker than managing for long term growth.

    Crime is collateral damage.

  5. As a criminal defense attorney (in New York), I can say that any measures making punishments tougher and sentences longer, do not make the deterrence necessarily better.

    A longer sentence, in legal terms, often mean re-classification of the crime to a higher level, often requiring an indictment by the grand jury. Such a reclassification may have a negative effect both on the local economy and on deterrence of criminal activity – the opposite effect to the one desired by the legislators.

    Example (from my NY practice) – if a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor (a crime), there is a likelihood that a plea bargain can be reached reducing the crime to a violation (not a crime). The defendant pays the fine, a criminal record is not created, yet, the fine may be sizeable enough to deter future similar misconduct, especially in drug and alcohol-related cases where any drug and alcohol-related violation will add up and tell on the defendant’s driver’s history.

    If a defendant is charged with a crime requiring longer sentence (usually a felony in our state requiring indictment by the grand jury), the following happens:

    1/ the procedure becomes more complicated – the grand jury layer is added;
    2/ the reduction to a mere violation is becoming a remote possibility; reduction from a felony to a misdemeanor still results in a criminal record – which will often undermine the attractiveness of a plea bargain for the criminal defendant;
    3/ as a result – more cases will go to trial;
    4/ if poverty is a factor in the commission of the crime, that also means that the defendant cannot afford an attorney, and such an attorney will have to be provided at public expense. As a result, the caseload on public defenders grows, in the locations where there are no public defenders and instead private attorneys are assigned through the assigned counsel program, the counties and county taxpayers carry heavier burden to pay for legal representation in such cases. I wonder if that is factored in by legislators when they are making such decisions to “toughen up” the laws.

    As far as I know, whenever penalties are upped, prosecutors are not really happy because it means more work for them too – more stakes upped to the point of making it justifiable for the criminal defendants to reject plea bargains and go for the full process – including motions, hearings and, ultimately a jury trial, which will also cost the already cash-stripped counties.

    Is it better? Will it deter more crimes? Or will it result in prosecutors and the police charging less defendants, simply in order to save the County money for legal representation?

  6. Ms. Neroni: thanks so much for your lessen on the criminal justice system in New York. I carefully read your lengthy post twice; nowhere did I see the word “victim” and if you used the word “justice” as a result of prosecution anywhere – I missed that usage. To me, your description of criminal justice in New York describes the worm in the Big Apple.

    I have copied and pasted a portion of the response I got from the deputy prosecutor here in Indianapolis who is “prosecuting” on my behalf and on behalf of the other three elderly women who were attacked and robbed in broad daylight on their property or on public property. I was was the most seriously injured so I questioned Assault charges beng filed against Mark Jones who attacked me. This is the response:

    “We won’t file separate assault charges on Mark Jones because the injury “element” is included in the B Felony Robbery charge. It reads as follows:

    Mark Jones and Lindsey Jones, on or about April 21, 2014, did knowlingly take from the person or presence of JoAnn Green property, that is: purse and contents, by putting JoAnn Green in fear or by using or threatening the use of force on JoAnn Green which resulted in bodily injury that is: pain, to JoAnn Green.”

    I was never afraid, I refuse to live in fear of these bullying cowards who prey on vulnerable victims. This is not the worst of the local law “bundling” of charges in this case; each of the three defendants is charged with ONE count of Robbery and ONE count of Fraud for a total of four Robbery and one Fraud charge. This is from the court documents which one TV newscaster provided me with. There are FOUR victims; my robbery alone has EIGHT fraud charges for using my two credit cards. I do not consider my bodily injuries to be an “element” – they are an assault resulting in hospitalization for several hours and permanent facial scarification resulting from the “pain” alluded to in the Robbery charge. Per the deputy prosecutor, the law is written this way to give them fewer charges to have to prove.

    Ms. Neroni, you admitted in your post that more charges means more work for prosecutors – tough s*#t! You also commented that it would up costs to prosecute fully – again, tough s*#t. You and the prosecutors in this city and state are paid with our tax dollars to seek justice for all victims; not find ways to do less work by not filing charges for ALL crimes committed by criminals. As always, the crux of the matter is FOLLOW THE MONEY!

  7. Crime always increases in the summer when the daylight hours are long and yet, big surprise, there’s an increase? When unemployed people don’t have enough to do, they end up in trouble because they are bored, hungry or just need mental health issues dealt with instead. Our crime rates have dropped to the lowest levels in American history and the education of citizens is at the highest ever yet there is still crime. What reasons are there for crime rising and the only thing I can come up with is BOREDOM. And desperation.

    The problem with red states like Indiana is that the prison system is profit based and unemployed or under employed can’t get jobs that keep them off the streets. We have all of these humans that are bored and need jobs but the state wants to cut taxes (republicans) which results in not enough humans to provide legal representation, police, fire staff and educators to those that need it.

    There are so many things that need to be done and I think the first thing we need is a jobs bill that will cover these vacancies (where there are gaping holes in the state business like JoAnn mentions). And construction jobs to repair the sorry roads, bridges, overpasses etc. Electrical lines need to get buried for those future tornadoes and severe wind storms that you will certainly get with all of this global warming that is going on this century.

    The state isn’t broke, the funds just go to the wrong things like politician salaries.

  8. I spotted an error in my posting; there is only a total of THREE Robbery charges against the three arrestees,. There are Four victims so apparently, the ONE Robbery charge against each of them includes all four victims plus ONE Fraud charge to cover all frauds they committed. This should save a lot of work and a lot of money for Marion County.

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