Crime and Punishment

by Frost on November 21, 2011

Today’s post is by another charming rogue who goes by Zdeno. Who is he? And has he ever been photographed next to the similarly-styled author of the 2Blowhards posts earlier this week? Conspiracy theorists will chatter, but this writer refuses to take a position. In any case, this Zdeno writes at The Durham Report.

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

– Will Rogers

Today, let’s have a look at a glitch in the matrix. We’ll consider a simple proposition which seems true, but is in complete disrepute among academics in the relevant field, and very much on the fringe of polite opinion. Then we’ll demonstrate how contrary are official opinion and reality. Finally, we’ll reflect on what implications the discrepancy has on the reputations of academia, our effective level of freedom of conscience, and the health of our nation.

The proposition is this: Increasing the length of sentences served by criminals necessarily results in fewer crimes being committed. To this, the layman says: Duh. Criminology professors disagree and will often claim that decreasing sentences is the true key to reducing crime. Many in the mainstream media are happy to echo this. Dan Gardner, who I harass today because he is often perceptive on other issues and really should know better, is a frequent champion of this belief. Sadly, most of his columns have been taken off-line, but here is a good example that I dredged up.

I’d like to offer a simple a priori proof that longer sentences reduce crime. There is a large and growing body of academic attempts to empirically answer this question, but in the absence of controlled experiments – as is so often the case in the social sciences – such studies are close to useless. Even if experiments did exist, one logical proof beats a thousand regression analyses – science, being a subset of reason, is trumped by it every time.

First, simply note that violent offenders have much, much higher average rates of subsequent violent crime than the people who have not been committed of a violent crime. In other words, violent criminal rates of recidivism are higher than the population average. This point is trivially obvious.

If we were to effectively imprison all violent offenders for life, they would have a zero percent recidivism rate. Since they would have a non-zero recidivism rate if we released them after, say, three years, it stands to reason that life imprisonment would reduce the number of violent crimes committed in subsequent years by the number that would have been committed by this set of previously-imprisoned violent offenders.

For it to be true that increasing their sentences would not reduce crime, it would be necessary to claim that new violent criminals arise to take the place of those that are imprisoned for life. This sort of behaviour is possible (and, IMO, likely) for certain crimes, such as the market-demanded crimes of drugs and flesh. But for muggings? For rapes? It is completely untenable to claim that extending sentences for such crimes would not result in a dramatic decline in their occurrence.

Also note that we have not mentioned the additional effects of deterrence. Criminologists generally scoff at the ability of stiff sentences to deter would-be criminals, dismissing such theories, as Gardner does, as a blind adherence to a “homo economicus” model of human behaviour. But the only escape from the logic presented above of recidivism-based crime reduction is to posit criminals that take up their dark trades as a result of a shortage, a response that strikes me as quite – wait for it – rational.

And really, if none of that convinces you, how about this? Crime in England, once the most civilized nation on Earth, has increased by several orders of magnitude over the past hundred years, despite increasing material wealth and improvements in law enforcement technology. Possibly these figures are biased by higher rates of reporting, new definitions of what is and is not a crime, and so on. The homicide rate however, surely the most consistent of crime-related statistics, has doubled since the 1950’s.

So in conclusion: Putting criminals in jail results in fewer innocent victims of crime. A shocking result, unless you happen to live outside the American Empire between 1964 and 2010 (and counting), in which case it is painfully, blindingly obvious. I’m quite confident that the trustworthy history books of the 22nd century will devote a chapter or five to this odd phenomenon that beset the western democracies in the late 20th century, wherein they en masse reduced sentences, built and staffed endless appeal courts, and took away many of the powers police require to effectively do their jobs, and subsequently paid lots of smart men to sit around and wonder aloud why crime was such a problem.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Explore Nature November 28, 2011 at 10:42 am

Probably we may have to redefine what is a crime in future. And we may have to categorize which kinds of illegal actions are criminal too.

Dulst November 27, 2011 at 11:04 am

Crime in general in England has increased partly because the amount of things made illegal has increased.

One could also suggest that homicide rates increasing is just another indicator of civilisation’s impending collapse. People are angry at the blue pill world, but can’t focus that anger. This undirectable anger leads to violence.

I’m only hypothesising here obviously.

As for imprisoning violent criminals for life – I don’t want my taxes wasted on that kind of shit. I don’t care about retribution, I just want a cheap, effective and humane way of reducing crime.

You should take a look at the Dutch justice system. Prisons in Holland are basically like holiday camps. Really nice places that treat their “guests” well.

The result? A massive decrease in reoffending.

You can use reason to prove either side of the punitive vs restorative argument, but when restorative justice is tested in real life situations, it comes out on top every time.

Ed November 22, 2011 at 11:46 am


An order of magnitude is a multiple of ten. Look it up. 1000 == 3 orders of magnitude. Look it up. Note also that multiplication is not addition. Look it up.

Kudos for finding a way to be much wronger than he was.

Bill Owen November 21, 2011 at 11:46 pm

“Sadly, most of his columns have been taken off-line,” Frost

What? You can’t find Dan’s website? -10 internets

Crime has gone up in England several “orders of magnitude” in the last hundred years? You do know that an “order of magnitude” 1000 right? So crime is now several thousand times more prevalent in England than it was a hundred years ago? Really? Really?

Stats please.

Read Pinker, he’s the cure for your delusions.

Virtually everything you wrote is scurrilous nonsense.

Are you David Warren? LOL

Chris November 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm

You seem to read Dan Gardner, and yet you misrepresent his views on crime policy entirely…

Ed November 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm

90% of that was redundant or irrelevant, and the rest was trivially obvious.

Peter Phoenix November 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm

You assume that they have the room to hold every single violent offender for long-terms. Don’t you know the prisons are over-crowded already?

Library Desk Graffiti November 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Yeah, with dudes who got 25 to life for “possession with intent to distribute”. Get outta here

red November 21, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Prisons in general is a system of torture and very infective at creating deterrence. The primary benefit we get from longer prison sentences is getting most criminals past their 20s and 30s away from normal folks. Once a man reaches 40s his criminal actions slow way down and most crime is related to raising mating value of the criminal.

Floggings would be much more effective in deterrence and much cheaper than prison. Physical pain works much better than the metal anguish that prisons cause.

Iain D November 21, 2011 at 11:33 am

The real question is whether or not keeping them in jail indefinitely is the best solution. While they’re in jail they’re a net cost to society. In some states keeping an inmate in prison costs more than sending someone to Harvard.

Let’s keep our discussion to violent offenders, since I agree that consensual crimes like drug dealing and prostitution are different beasts.

The recidivism rate for violent offenders is not 100% (it’s around 50%, so we would also not necessarily be raising the violent crime rate by releasing some inmates. Unless we’re willing to bear the cost of the inmates who will not re-offend we’re stuck in the position of having to decide on a case by case basis, which is more of less what we do now. It’s not perfect, but it can be improved.

We also have to consider whether or not the prison environment encourages violent behaviour, therefore increasing the likelihood of recidivism. Jail is a relatively recent invention (mid 1800’s) and I don’t think it has had good results.

In short: “lock ’em up forever!” is a bit too simplistic a solution for me. Yes, it will likely reduce violent crime, but at high cost and at the expense of those people who will not re-offend.

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