Getting Smart instead of Getting Tough


In a perusal of today’s headlines and the Internet I found two items of interest. One was about the death penalty and the other a study about alternatives to imprisonment.


            Concerning the death penalty, a headline story in USA Today (“Wider death penalty sought”) tells of six states seeking to expand the use of the death penalty.  Much of what passes for crime control policies is based more on faith and facts.  The death penalty is a prime example.


            Proponents of the death penalty are constantly claiming that it is a deterrent, when in fact virtually every study (hundreds of them) dating back at least 70 years has shown conclusively that it is no deterrent.  Never mind what the reality is, Texas is proposing executing child molesters who did not murder their victims. Rich Parsons, spokesperson for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (a Republican) says that “If they understand they could face the ultimate punishment, they might think twice.”


            Virginia is considering a bill making even accomplices to murder subject to the death penalty.  Republican Todd Gilbert is “a believer in the deterrent effect of the death penalty.”  Utah State Rep. Paul Ray (a republican), has introduced a bill that would expand the death penalty to cover those who kill a child during abuse, sexual assault or kidnapping, even though no proof of intent was made.  In typically tough language he said “We’re going to send a message that if you kill our kids in Utah, we’re going to kill you.”


            This is nothing other than a lot of hot air that will have no impact on homicide rates.  (But it certainly will get some votes!)  Why?  There are many reasons, but one has to do with the nature of violence.  Violence can be either “expressive” or “instrumental.”  The former includes violence that is an expression of rage, hatred, jealousy, etc. (often accentuated by alcohol or drugs) and these are cases where there is no thought of getting caught (nor stopping to find out if the state carries the death penalty).  The latter pertains to violence to achieve some goal (like a street mugging, a robbery of a bank, etc.) during which the perpetrator does not plan in getting caught in the first place.


            Somewhat related to the death penalty issue is a study just released by the Vera Institute (a non-profit organization dealing with criminal justice issues) called “Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime.”  (For a copy if this report go to the following web site: Among other things, the report reviews all available research concerning the impact of a 10% rise in incarceration rates on crime.  A review of 15 major studies (some focusing on the nation as a whole and some on individual states or counties) found that the majority found little if any impact; most found either a modest decrease in serious crime (usually between 2 and 4% or no change at all). What is interesting is that the studies covered many different time periods (e.g. 1958-1995, 1971-1007, 1980-1998, 1970-2000). 


            Some studies focused on the impact at the neighborhood level and found that rising incarceration rates can actually lead to an increase in crime rates.  One study concluded that high rates of incarceration causes a breakdown of social and family bonds, remove adults who could provide nurturance for children from the community, deprive such communities of income and create resentment toward the legal system.


            One policy that may make a difference – and one that research has caused me to change my view of – is increasing the size of the police force, which has a positive impact within certain communities, depending upon how the police are deployed, even though the impact is small (roughly a 10% reduction in serious crime).


            The largest contributor to the lowering of crime rates during the past 15 years has been a rise in real wages, an increase in high school graduation rates and a drop in unemployment rates.  One study (examining 705 counties nationwide) found that a 10% rise in real wages resulted in a 25% drop in violent offenses and a 13% drop in property offenses.  Another study found that a 10% increase in graduation rates resulted in a 9% drop in index crimes (national data). A national study found that a 10% drop in unemployment rates resulted in a 16% drop in property crime rates between 1992 and 1997.  Prisoner education programs have been found to cause a lowering of recidivism rates.


            Public opinion seems to generally favor addressing some of the social causes of crime, such as improving employment and educational opportunities. It leads me to conclude that we should “get smart on crime” instead of “getting tough.”