Monday, October 26, 2009

And throw away the key - Part II

There really are some basic principles on which we can pretty much all agree.
  • Crime is bad.
  • Preventing crime is good.
  • Doing things that will actually prevent crime is better than doing things that only pretend to prevent crime.
Yeah, even that last one. The politicians go for the pretense not because they think it's better to pretend but because it's easier and (politically) safer.

If we accept those principles, then the question is what will actually prevent crime and how do we go about doing those things.

Our basic model, for the past few decades, has been to lock people up and throw away the key. We know, when we care to admit it to ourselves, that it doesn't work, that there are better alternatives. The problem with that approach, as I've said before, is that criminal law comes in on the back end, after the crime. If you want to stop crime, you have to look at prevention along with punishment.

This isn't a new idea, but it's been gathering force. Virginia Senator James Webb has been pushing it in Congress. The Constitution Project coordinated some 25 organizations in putting together a catalogue of suggestions for being Smart on Crime.

Some of what we should do is obvious. Decriminalize some behavior. Shakespeare has it right in Measure for Measure. In the Duke's absence, Angelo has been left in charge of Vienna, and is determined to enforce the law against fornication (and to violate it, since he's a hypocrite, but that's a separate, albeit related, matter). The obvious question comes up from one of the subjects:
Does your worship mean to geld and spay all the youth in the city?
What people will do, regardless, cannot usefully be made criminal. Consider marijuana. The battle is lost. Decriminalize completely. Forget making it only a citable offense. It shouldn't be an offense at all. You can't successfully criminalize behavior that's too widespread and viewed among large percentages of the population as both harmless and desirable.

In any event, it's in this context that Mark Kleiman has been invited to do a week of guest blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.
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 short version:
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.

The long version is in his new book. I don't expect to agree with all of it, maybe not even with most of it, but I'm looking forward to reading it.

We cannot lock everyone up. Acknowledge that truth and you have to look at what else is available.

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