Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Less Crime, Less Punishment

It's been a while since the last update. Unfortunately, not a lot of forensic research has been catching my eye lately. Fortunately, on the other hand, I've been busy with other areas of research. So don't take this radio silence as a sign of inactivity.

I'm writing today not about some new peer-reviewed research, but instead on a talk I just attended. Zocalo is a fairly new organization in Los Angeles which focuses on stimulating dialogue on a wide variety of subjects. I've been to a few before; tonight's topic was crime reduction. Mark Kleiman, a public policy expert and professor at UCLA, presented some suggestions and examples for effectively reducing crime while emptying prisons.

There wasn't much that I hadn't heard before in terms of general principles - swift and focused enforcement and punishment instead of empty threats and general-purpose jail sentences - but it was interesting to hear it from different perspective. As a psychologist, I came in expecting to hear more about the criminals involved and their behavior - why they're committing crime and why they do or don't stop. However, as a policy honcho, Kleiman spoke in terms of running numbers and top-down control. Early on I actually worried that he might be as detached from actual behavior as an economist, especially when he brought out the rational costs-benefits analysis of days in prison per burglary take.

No cause for alarm, though. As he went on and provided more specific examples of programs that have worked, it all started sounding much more familiar. Prison, and the threat of prison, are not effective deterrents because it's an abstract concept, and many of the people who end up there go in with a stoic resignation. But slapping on an anklet with an attached curfew can shake even the hardest thug.

Similarly, focusing interventions works. Kleiman gave some examples of programs with meth users on probation in Hawai'i and cocaine dealers in North Carolina, where law enforcement decided to go to the problem, repeat offenders, the source of the problem, and not lock them up, but give them specific warnings (or threats) with plenty of follow-through. Exactly the same learning principles work for offenders as work for dogs as work for children, etc. Consistency and specificity.

There were some other thought nuggets I appreciated in the talk, like his stance on the death penalty (completely irrelevant to the issue of crime), but primarily I came away with some hope that the system of American law enforcement is gradually turning away from the heavy-handed tactics that landed us with 1% of our population in jail, and turning towards more effective (and cost-effective), focused enforcement. If nothing else, every politician should be reminded that the primary task of law enforcement is not to lock people up, but to prevent crime when possible and punish crime when necessary.

By the way, Mark Kleiman has a new book, When Brute Force Fails. Check it out. Send it to your congressperson.