Fundamental Misunderstandings About Crime & Punishment

Posted: June 30, 2013 in Corrections, Courts, Research
Tags: , , , ,

It’s all the judge’s fault, or the police, or our prison system, or our ________________;  just fill in the blank with your favorite scapegoat. This is one of the fundamental misunderstandings about crime – that its source is somewhere just over there, and its solution is just one simple step away.

We believe that if we just tweaked this or that part of the system, or sent more people to prison for longer stretches, or maybe just started killing criminals altogether – well then, all of our problems would be solved.

Except they wouldn’t. Not even close.

Sentencing Tweet

I ran across this tweet from a news station in St. Louis this weekend, and it was yet another reminder of this phenomenon. I’ve given it the hashtag, #ifwejust: If we just did some particular thing, then crime would go down, we’d be safer, better off, less afraid.

This resonates with our common-sense beliefs about crime and justice, which primarily reflect a child/parent view of the world instilled in us from a very young age.

It goes something like this: When someone is bad, they get caught, punished, and they “learn their lesson.” Easy.

As adults, we translate that into: When someone breaks the law, the police catch them, they go to prison, they learn their lesson. Easy.

But that’s wrong.

Here’s what actually happens:


via Daily Kos

So, our parenting metaphor breaks down right away. Most offenders are never caught, and the ones who are arrested have a good chance of never going to prison.  And, the few offenders who actually do go to prison often receive very little help that would reduce their risk of future criminal behavior anyway.

Punishment alone does not change behavior, it merely drives it underground. [Tweet This!]

In highly retributive systems like ours, people focus more on avoiding detection than on changing their behavior. And, that’s just human nature.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment to clarify:

Imagine you’re driving to a meeting and you’re running a bit late. You know that if you drive a little faster, you’ll get where you’re going sooner. It’s not that big of a deal, right? So, you’re going 85 MPH in a 65 MPH zone and life is good. You’re breaking the law, but you’re not really hurting anyone. So, what’s the difference?

Suddenly, you see a police squad car coming down the entrance ramp to the highway. What do you do? If you’re like most people, you let up on the gas and slow down to somewhere near the speed limit. You drive on for a while, and then you see the squad car exiting the highway. What do you do next? You probably speed back up. You have to get to your meeting on time after all, right? You’re entitled to speed a little because you have a good reason for doing so.

That’s an example of how the threat of punishment merely drives behavior underground. It doesn’t change your underlying thought processes or your sense of entitlement – it just makes you better at avoiding detection. Even if you received a ticket, how much would your behavior actually change? Punishment rarely makes a significant positive difference in our worldview.

Now, before you argue that all of this means we should “coddle” criminal offenders or just give them a big hug, think again. Punishment has its place in our system. When someone breaks the law, they’ve created a social debt that they need to re-pay, and incarceration is one way to satisfy that debt.

But, jails and prisons alone will never get us where we want to go in terms of real, long-lasting crime reduction. [Tweet This!]

What needs to change is our overall approach to crime and punishment.

Research has demonstrated that an identifiable set of risk factors are largely responsible for criminal behavior, including:

  • Lack of education
  • Lack of employment
  • Drug and alcohol problems
  • Antisocial peers
  • Antisocial attitudes

The good news is that all of these lend themselves to intervention. Reasonable incarceration policies, combined with interventions proven through research to reduce the risk of future crime, would be more effective, less costly, and more just than our current approach.

But, as long as people believe that the only way to curb crime is to lock people up for longer and longer periods of time, we’ll likely make little headway.

What are your thoughts on this? Comment below and vote in this week’s poll!

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  1. I agree with everything in your post. However, it simplifies American jurisprudence and trends of incarceration too much. What people fail to comprehend about the American criminal justice system is that prisons are currently “for profit.” The privatization of prisons makes incarceration a very lucrative endeavor. It places a price tag and a quota on justice. Furthermore, private prisons are held less accountable to oversight by citizens and authority. Because they are privately owned business ventures, they can make their own rules in terms of how facilities are run. It is a proven fact that prison privatization is not more cost effective than state run facilities and actually has the opposite effect in terms of reducing the rates of incarceration.


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