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October 6, 2009

"A Smarter (and Cost-Efficient) Way to Fight Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent piece in the New York Times by economist Robert Frank.  Here are snippets:

Law enforcement policy in the United States rests implicitly on the “rational actor” model of traditional economics, which holds that people take only those actions whose benefits exceed their costs.

This model says that crime will be deterred if the expected punishment is strong enough — a prediction that has not been borne out in practice. Although long sentences are now common and the incarceration rate is five times what it was during most of the 20th century, the crime rate is still two and a half times the average of 1950-62.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there is a better way. In a new book, “When Brute Force Fails,” he argues that instead of making punishments more severe, the authorities should increase the odds that lawbreakers will be apprehended and punished quickly....

The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their crimes. One way to make apprehension and punishment more likely is to spend substantially more money on law enforcement. In a time of chronic budget shortfalls, however, that won’t happen.

But Mr. Kleiman suggests that smarter enforcement strategies can make existing budgets go further. The important step, he says, is to view enforcement as a dynamic game in which strategically chosen deterrence policies become self-reinforcing. If offense rates fall enough, a tipping point is reached. And once that happens, even modest enforcement resources can hold offenders in check....

It is an ingenious idea that borrows from game theory and the economics of signaling behavior....

Considerable evidence supports Mr. Kleiman’s emphasis on the efficacy of immediate sanctions. Experimenters have found, for example, that even long-term alcoholics become much less likely to drink when they are required to receive a mild electric shock before drinking. Many of these same people were not deterred by their drinking’s devastating, but delayed, consequences for their careers and marriages....

Potential applications of dynamic deterrence extend well beyond street crime. For example, it could help rein in corporate scofflaws who now feel free to violate environmental and safety regulations because they know that regulators are stretched thin. The strategy won’t work in all situations. But when the circumstances are right, it’s a revolutionary idea.

October 6, 2009 at 05:41 PM | Permalink


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Will "Hardened Criminals" Really Respond to Lighter Sanctions?: Sentencing Law and Policy blogger Doug Berman posts today on Robert H. Frank's New York Times piece "A Smarter (and Cost-Efficient) Way to Fight Crime." The piece, published last Saturday,... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 6, 2009 6:50:43 PM


Quicker and more certain apprehension and punishment are all to the good, but will require that more resources be invested in the police and that the procedural wrangling that now takes months or years be substantially reduced.

Incidentally, the notion that the perceived likelihood of getting caught counts more toward reducing crime than the potential severity of the punishment is not, contrary to the article, a revolutionary idea. It's been known for a long time.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 6, 2009 7:04:04 PM

Prof. Kleiman's recommendations are precisely to put more resources into police and probation officers, and less into prisons, via substantially fewer and shorter sentences of imprisonment. The net cost of his approach is therefore significantly lower, not higher.

Posted by: Peter G | Oct 6, 2009 11:21:30 PM

The left wing proposal is to enlarge government, increase surveillance of the public, reduce incapacitation.

123D would do more, at a lower cost, and would leave innocent people alone.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 7, 2009 6:43:10 AM

Bill is correct "Swift and sure apprehension" has been known to be an effective deterrent for a long time. To make any difference apprehension has to be followed by swift and sure incapacitation and what we have in the US is fast food and slow justice.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 7, 2009 8:03:20 AM

Peter G. --

"Prof. Kleiman's recommendations are precisely to put more resources into police and probation officers, and less into prisons, via substantially fewer and shorter sentences of imprisonment. The net cost of his approach is therefore significantly lower, not higher."

That could turn out to be true, but it depends on how much more goes into the police budget and how much less into the prison budget.

I also did not see anything in the article suggesting fewer sentences -- shorter, yes, but not necessarily fewer.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 7, 2009 9:31:50 AM

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