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June 26, 2020

"How to have less crime with less punishment"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Hill commentary authored by Benjamin van Rooij and Adam Fine.  Here are excerpts:

For too long, America has been under the illusion that punishment is an effective medicine against crime.  This has led to the largest prison population in the world, a system of mass incarceration that has destroyed families and neighborhoods caught in circles of arrests, imprisonment, probation, and legal discrimination.  And with very little to show for it. It did not help win the War on Drugs or prevent the current opioid epidemic, nor did it play a significant role in the crime declines in cities like New York.  The criminal justice system does not even help to prevent crime through incapacitation, by locking offenders out of society, as this, in the most positive estimate, reduces crime by only 0.4 percent.

So, the idea that we can only get law and order through punishment is simply flawed. Surely, there should not be impunity, and punishment is definitely part of any law and order mix. But, it should just not be its chief focus. There are much better ways to prevent crime....

If we simply make crime harder, we need less police and less punishment.  There is a clear road ahead here. If you want to reduce homicide and many forms of gang violence, and many suicides while you’re at it, just ban guns, or at least severely restrict access to them.  Just consider how none of America’s top-ten mass shootings occurred during the federal ban on assault rifles.  And this has the added advantage that we deescalate police work, as cops have less reason to be afraid and less reason to act like soldiers in war zones.

Next, we can ensure that people do not have to resort to crime in the first place.  We clearly know that when there is less poverty, there is less crime, and when people get to finish their education, again, less crime. So let’s fight crime by fighting poverty and investing in education.  And for those who do resort to crime, we can turn to our next layer of defense: treatment.  Perhaps the most surprising thing we learned when we looked through decades of research was that rehabilitation programs that provide cognitive therapy, aggression training and substance abuse treatment actually work very well.  They are shown to reduce crime between 18-60 percent.

Finally, we can also have less crime if more people think the law is legitimate.  In fact, the way we perceive the criminal justice system is directly related to our willingness to engage in crime.  If people feel that the legal system treats them with respect, that it listens to their concerns, and that it acts impartially and neutrally, they will be less likely to commit a crime.  We must make our legal system fair and just because in doing so, we not only end the racism and brutality that have existed for so long, but we also fight crime.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: there are many insights about how to reduce crime based on scientific evidence. Yet most of these are ignored in our politics and in our public media.  Why do we rely on scientists to fight the coronavirus, but fail to heed their findings when addressing crime and public safety?

We have simply fooled ourselves in believing that punishment and tough-on-crime are the keys.  We have given in to our punishment reflex. It’s time to overcome our gut feelings, follow the evidence, and build a criminal justice system that starts to deliver the justice and safety it so direly owes us all.

June 26, 2020 at 08:17 PM | Permalink


While initially interesting, the anti 2nd Amendment screed embedded in it makes the bulk of the article not worth reading.

Posted by: restless94110 | Jun 26, 2020 10:26:08 PM

You can have all the gun laws and they are totally worthless. The state of Illinois has extra gun laws banning them in town and have to have a card to buy ammo.

Last weekend Chicago had 102 shootings......Nobody ever tries to address their gun issues. The beat just goes on and on... So gun laws is just a bunch of political B. S..

Trump thinks hes so tough, why dont he actually try to fix something.

Theres no other way to look at this.. No new gun laws until you fix Chicago

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jun 26, 2020 10:30:24 PM

There is only so much State law on gun control can achieve .... it needs a blanket agreement amongst States or a Federal Law. Lots of folk claim they only possess guns "for personal protection" but there is no evidence that even 1% have found benefit in reality. The guns are more likely to result in accidental injury or fatality within the family, or in some instances the murder of innocent people.
Even so, were effective gun controls introduced, it would take a huge and ongoing program of amnesty collection to round up unnecessary and illegal guns from the public.
But should that be an obstacle to reform and the ambition to achieve it? I think not. The Founding Fathers had a particular vision and aspiration for their country which was relevant to their generation. It has provided an invaluable reference, but no-one should doubt that society today is unrecognizable from their generations .... and the law and new aspirations should reflect that with reform. The article is sound in its proposals of both.

Posted by: peter | Jun 27, 2020 7:30:26 AM

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