Swift-and-Certain Sanctions

When reading Mark Kleiman, it always helps to tune out the pointless and counterproductive anti-conservative remarks. His new essay on crime control makes a strong case that despite the recent crime decline we’ve seen over the past two decade, crime levels remain unacceptably high and reducing crime levels would yield enormous economic and social dividends:

To avoid being victimized, people lock their doors, stay at home, and avoid dangerous neighborhoods. All of those forms of crime avoidance are costly, and not only to those who engage in them. When those people and businesses that can abandon high-crime neighborhoods do so, they leave those neighborhoods poorer—in social connections, in services, and in job opportunities—and even more dangerous than they already were. It would be impossible to understand the residential patterns in any metropolitan area without reference to the crime map. A crime decline that partly stems from the depopulation of high-crime neighborhoods is nothing to be proud of, and even today’s reduced crime rates are still at least 50 percent above those of the 1950s and early 1960s. Homicide has fallen further, but that seems to stem in part from better medical care: The rate of intentional gunshot injury has not been falling.

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. And concentrated it is: African Americans face more than six times the murder risk of the rest of the population, and there are neighborhoods where homicide is the leading cause of death among males between 15 and 30.

Kleiman also address common misconceptions about the costs of crime control, e.g., governments at all levels spend $225 billion a year on law enforcement, and prisons and jails account for $55 billion. Eliminating expenditures on prisons and jails “wouldn’t finance a 10 percent increase in education spending.” Yet the human consequences of incarceration are staggering, as Kleiman makes clear.

He argues that the economic incentives to engage in criminal behavior are very weak, and that the decision to commit crime is driven not by rational economic calculation but rather by the fact that criminals tend to be impulsive, present-oriented, and not very good at weighing the costs and benefits of reckless behavior. 

Kleiman’s core insight is that we need to reconcile our approach to law enforcement with the fact that criminals tend to be “reckless, impulsive, short-term-oriented people.”

Way back in the eighteenth century, Cesare Beccaria—the Italian criminologist from whom Jeremy Bentham borrowed not only the term “utility” but many of his ideas for criminal-justice reform—identified three characteristics that determine the deterrent efficacy of a threatened punishment: its swiftness, its certainty, and its severity. Of the three, severity is least important. 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. (It was only two and a half centuries after Beccaria that psychologists and behavioral economists discovered that some degree of excessive present-orientation, and excessive discounting of the risk of large losses, is normal.) The sort of bad gamble represented by most offenses tends to attract precisely those whose departures from rationality are most egregious.

In recent decades, U.S. law enforcement has emphasized severity and not swiftness and certainty. But the severity of future punishment has little deterrent effect if the likelihood of punishment is low or if it is delayed, particularly if we’re dealing with people who are reckless, impulsive, and short-term-oriented. 

Drawing on his work in When Brute Force Fails, Kleiman touts the benefits of a swift-and-certain approach to community supervision:

Where swift-and-certain sanctions for enforcing community corrections rules have been tried—and where the system has been properly organized, first to deliver the clear warnings and then to deliver on the threats when necessary—the results have been astounding. Drug-using offenders supervised under those conditions achieve much bigger reductions in drug use than result from the mandatory drug treatment; 80 percent of long-term criminally active users of hard drugs turn out to be able to quit under steady pressure. That in turn leads to reductions of 50 percent or more in new crimes and, crucially, days spent behind bars. Those results make swift-and-certain sanctions programs—which, along with Hawaii, have been tried in Texas, Washington state, California, and (focusing on alcohol) South Dakota—easily the most promising approach to reducing crime rates and incarceration rates both relatively quickly (over the next few years) and dramatically. 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.

The article closes with a few tentative suggestions, one of which is modest in scope:

We could get quicker dividends by starting and ending the middle-school and high-school day a couple of hours later, shortening the burglary-friendly period between when school gets out and grown-ups get home from work. A later-starting school day would also benefit students’ health and academic performance by giving them more time to sleep. But changing school hours would also interfere with extracurricular activities and inconvenience various adults, so it seems to be a nonstarter.

As someone who values sleep very highly, and who had to endure an hour-long commute as a high schooler, I’m inclined to think this initiative is worth pursuing.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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