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.