Crime and Punishment

In spite of what politicians may tell us, crime has declined dramatically since the 1990s. Sure, policy makers can always point out exceptions (murder rates in Dallas and Chicago, for example), but most of us do not live in areas where those exceptions apply and those statistics are not indicative of overall trends. You can click HERE to read ten possible explanations for the decline. Remember that they are just theories.

Politicians often want us to believe crime is at an “all time high” because it is an emotional issue that captivates our attention and, consequently, they can claim to be “tough on crime” and win our votes.  This demagoguery keeps Americans from understanding the truth AND it causes a large number of us to live in an unnecessary state of fear.

The common argument that crime rates are higher in the United States than any other countries is also incorrect; we actually rank 53rd of 125 countries included in the current crime index. However, our crime rate is, unfortunately, higher than in countries we would consider our social and economic peers. Why that is true is a question that does not lend itself to a simple answer.

Of course folks in academia have developed all sorts of cool theories to explain American crime, but finding one theory that explains all crime just isn’t possible. Someone who walks in on a spouse having “relations” with another person might react violently for one reason whereas someone acting violently in another context might have a different reason. Someone who steals groceries to feed her family commits a crime for different reasons than someone steals a car to go for a ride. So theories explaining crime are by nature limited.

Arguments regarding crime are complicated by the fact that crime is what we say it is. Some crimes are fairly obvious and are generally common to most societies (murder, theft, etc.) while others are not necessarily obvious and are defined by each society (pornography, drug use, traffic laws, prostitution, etc.).  Laws are not always rational and are often passed for all the wrong reasons (which I’ll explore sometime soon), so expending resources enforcing those laws is illogical. In an earlier post I argued that most drug laws make no sense. I would add laws creating our current system of taxation and OTHERS  (you should read some of these for fun).

A final issue is appropriate punishment for crimes. The Constitution says a punishment cannot be “cruel and unusual” and state constitutions impose similar restrictions, but legislatures otherwise have a great deal of latitude in assigning punishments to crimes. Again, some punishments are obvious (a fine for speeding makes more sense than death by firing squad) and others are not (should non-violent offenders be imprisoned).

Although states and the federal government occasionally review their civil and criminal codes, there is never a wholesale attempt to reconsider those codes and determine whether they are still reasonable.  Nor do these governments consistently examine possible causes for various crimes and attempt to address them. I believe it is time to reconsider crime and punishment, and here is an outline of what I propose.

First we need to determine which of our fellow citizens’ actions might elicit fear. In other words, which criminals am I really afraid of? That one is actually pretty easy, at least in my mind. I’m afraid of murderers, rapists, heroin and meth dealers, child abusers, armed robbers, arsonists, terrorists, those guilty of aggravated assault. I’m less fearful of embezzlers, drug abusers, minor drug distributers, those committing fraud, and other non-violent offenders. I’m also less afraid of speeders, those running traffic lights, and other motor vehicle criminals (with the exception of impaired drivers). I’m not afraid of drug users, prostitutes, gamblers, and other non-violent offenders and I would either decriminalize or legalize those activities.

Then we have to assign consequences to criminal actions, and my ideas here are pretty radical because I think we need to reconsider the purpose of prisons. We should stop thinking of them as “corrections” facilities and begin thinking of them as places we send people of whom we are afraid. For life. If I’m afraid of a rapist today I will still be afraid of him or her in twenty years. I feel the same about any violent offenders. No three strikes because in this game you only get one. Maybe there could be a way for the offenders to demonstrate that we no longer need to fear them at some point in the future, but I don’t know of any such way. So the only people I’d send to prison are violent offenders.

I’d be creative with non-violent offenders and the punishment would vary by the crime. For minor offenses (traffic violations, minor embezzlement, corporate fraud, etc.) I would continue imposing fines; the more severe the crime the higher the fine. The goal is to deter future behavior by the offender and others. Does deterrence work for some crimes? Yes. I only need to ask; why do you stay within a few MPH of the speed limit when you drive? Most of us do so because we fear a fine.

For more serious criminal offenders I would require community service, electronic monitoring, shock boot camp (I know repeat DUI offenders whose lives were turned around by this experience), and various rehabilitation services. We should allow judges to exercise creativity so they may craft an appropriate punishment for each circumstance.

We should also eliminate three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, but I’ll save those for later.

As of March, 2016 the United States was holding more than 2.3 million prisoners in its federal, state, and local prisons, and more than half of those incarcerated were confined for non violent offenses. You probably know that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, yet we still have the highest crime rate of all similar countries. I really think it is time to reconsider our ideas regarding crime and punishment.