Myself and a prosecutor (I’m a criminal defense lawyer working in a public defender office in Minnesota) spoke to a group of mystery writers last night. The prosecutor was actually the featured speaker although as we got into issues of criminal justice, the questions flew at both of us. Here are some of them:
1. We should just put the criminals in prison and throw away the keys.
Easy to say and it certainly makes us feel good. People have the impression that most criminals are “getting away” with their crimes and aren’t paying the penalty. The media feed this idea since they only report the few cases where someone does beat the system. The reality is that the majority of people charged with crimes are found guilty and do pay the penalty.
Question is, what should the penalty be?
My prosecutor friend brought up several recent empirical studies that show short, intensive punishment combined with rehabilitation efforts tend to have the best results. Why?
Putting aside the serial murderers and career criminals, I believe it’s because simply locking people away can be counter-productive. For many of them, the hardest part is when the doors to the jail slam shut. After months or even years, the deterrent effect of incarceration drops off. So, it makes sense to send people for a limited amount of time–with supervised probation and release afterward.
2. Criminals will never change–there’s no hope they’ll reform themselves.
Some psychologists maintain that criminals are people who have chosen to live a life of crime and will continue to do so no matter what we do to them. I’m not sure this is true all the time. I think that most criminals balance the risks of getting caught with the rewards of crime. I believe some can be persuaded to go straight. The best persuasion is a combination of prison and probation.
3. Many criminals are drug addicts who commit crime to feed their habits. No. I would say in my own experience that the majority of crimes are committed when people are high–by far alcohol is the most prevalent–when they commit crimes but they’re not doing the crime to make money to supply themselves with drugs. And for all the attention to dangerous drugs, alcohol still remains the most widely abused chemical substance that leads to crime.
4. The crime news in the papers never seems to end–crime is up. It’s definitely down, especially since a peak during the 1980’s as measured by the FBI. Violent crime and all types of crime are down significantly. Why does it seem the opposite? The news media report criminal acts–not the drop in crime.
5. “Get tough on crime” laws and longer prison sentences deter crime. I don’t think so. In my experience dealing with defendants charged with crime, the last thing they think about is getting caught and certainly, they never think about penalties. The one area that’s different is in drinking and driving crimes. People do think about that when taking another drink. But particularly for crimes of passion and anger, very few people stop to think about the penalties–therefore, I don’t think tougher penalties act as a deterrent.
What are you ideas? Get tougher? More probation? More community service? What can we do?