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February 21, 2011

Special issue of Criminology & Public Policy examines mass incarceration and targeted policing

C& PP cover I was pleased this weekend to discover that the February 2011 issue of Criminology & Public Policy is devoted to the idea that society would be well served to reallocate resources from mass incarceration to targeted policing.   Here is the start from the editor's introduction to the issue authored by Richard Rosenfeld:

Mass incarceration is the criminological issue of our time. A close contender is so-called hot-spots policing.  The former invites condemnation from most criminologists.  The latter inspires confidence that smart policing can reduce crime. In their provocative and important paper that is the focus of this special issue of Criminology & Public Policy, Steven Durlauf and Daniel Nagin (2011) bring the two issues together and propose that we might be able to achieve crime reductions by shortening prison sentences and using the cost savings to support more and better policing.  They rest their case squarely in a deterrence framework.  They argue that increasing the severity of punishment through marginal increases in the length of prison sentences has weak deterrent effects, at best; by the same logic, shortening prison sentences should not produce appreciable crime increases.  In contrast, increasing the perceived certainty of punishment can reduce crime without increasing imprisonment levels through targeted policing strategies that reduce criminal opportunities.  If the authors are right, this is a win-win strategy for crime control and criminal justice policy.

Durlauf and Nagin (2011) are careful to delimit scope of their analysis.  They do not examine the incapacitation effects of imprisonment or retribution as a goal of punishment.  They do not consider in any detail crime-reduction approaches that extend beyond the criminal justice system.  They acknowledge but do not thrash out the daunting political obstacles to shifting resources from state corrections budgets to local police departments.  They also acknowledge the limited, albeit promising, research base for the effectiveness of targeted enforcement and call for more and better research.  Nor do they claim originality for their assessment of the deterrent effects of imprisonment and policing.  The deterrence framework they invoke dates to Beccaria and Bentham.  Others have advocated smarter policing as a substitute for more incarceration (e.g., Weisburd, 2008).  Durlauf and Nagin’s (2011) contribution is to ground deterrence in the logic and methods of modern economics and draw out the research and policy implications of increasing the certainty and reducing the severity of punishment.  I believe they have succeeded admirably in achieving their objectives, especially if it is assumed that their overriding objective was to provoke thoughtful and informed discussion of their proposals by academic experts and policy professionals alike.  As former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh (2011) puts it in his reaction essay, Durlauf and Nagin’s analysis provides an ideal “jumping off point” for serious debate.

The 16 reaction essays in this issue are uniformly sympathetic to Durlauf and Nagin’s (2011) basic argument, even while many are critical of specific aspects of their evaluation of the deterrence literature and diagnosis of the trade-offs between reductions in imprisonment and enhancements in policing.  None proposes increasing incarceration or returning to policing as usual to promote public safety.  Yet most of the discussants would have liked the authors to deepen their analysis of the criminal justice system and extend their arguments beyond the stated objectives.

February 21, 2011 at 02:07 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Naila | Aug 28, 2011 8:49:47 AM

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