Most people probably agree with the statement that crime doesn’t pay. Or at least that it doesn’t pay enough to compensate for the prospect of being caught and penalized. If they didn’t, we would have many more criminals on the loose. In the United States, as in many other affluent societies, crime remains a marginal occupation.
Crime would be higher if the expected penalties were cheap relative to the anticipated payoff. That’s why it flourishes in corrupt societies. Where bribery is common, a criminal need only share the spoils with the cop, a relatively cheap punishment.
The poor are more likely to commit crime not only because the cops police less in poor neighborhoods. As Janice might put it, if you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose. For the rich, crime only works when the reward is high. Think Bernie Madoff.
But what is the best way to deter crime? The “tough on crime” approach that’s defined American policy since the 1980s rests on the belief that the best way to tackle crime is to raise the penalties –increasing sentences in order to make criminals think twice. This has given us the 3-strikes-and-you’re-out approach implemented in California and boosted the population in jail to some 2.3 million Americans. By 2008 the UNited States was incarcerating 753 out of every 100,000 Americans, a higher rate than China, Cuba or Iran.
In a recent report (Abstract. The paper is gated), Phillip J. Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University suggest that “a more efficient portfolio of crime-control strategies would involve greater attention to enhancing the certainty rather than the severity of punishment for criminal behavior.” In other words, putting more cops on the street to ensure criminals are caught, even if they get a light sentence, would do more to deter future crime than just piling on the years in jail.
The researchers calculated that just reducing average sentences to where they were in 1984 would reduce the prison population by 400,000 and save $12 billion out of a $70 billion of total prison spending. That could pay for a lot of cops on the beat. Or it could pay for a lot of education. The cost/benefit analysis of crime suggests that improving education will reduce crime fairly drastically, increasing peoples’ future earning power in the non-criminal economy, enabling them to earn a decent living and giving them something to lose.