Five Myths about Crime Today

myths about crimeMyself 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?

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.


Five Myths about Crime Today — 2 Comments

  1. I have to disagree with some of your key points. I have worked in the criminal justice system specifically community supervision for a decade. I would like to address your key points separately if you don’t mind.

    We should just put the criminals in prison and throw away the keys.
    Habitual criminals who pose a risk to society at large and who have received the gamut of intervention and prevention services should absolutely be incarcerated for lengthy periods. Why? Because they have demonstrated through their repetitive criminal endeavors that they can not remain in society without victimization. For example, on paper a first degree burglary does not seem as serious as murder, however try telling this to the victim’s who were home when this burglary occurred. Try explaining to the victim whose very sense of security within their own home has been dismantled perhaps permanently because the sanctity of their domicile has been damaged. A longer criminal sentence, in my opinion, has a more lasting impact than a slap on the wrist and supervision by an already overburdened parole/probation system. I believe that lengthy punishment can serve as a deterrent no matter how small the percentage. It is still MUCH higher than a shorter sentence coupled with community supervision. The persons I have supervised in the community who have served sentences of five years or longer, are by far much more compliant than those that serve less than a year.

    Criminals will never change–there’s no hope they’ll reform themselves.
    With exception to pedophiles, and serial killers, along with those diagnosed with intrinsic behavioral disorders, many criminals can be reformed…IF they want to. Throughout my career I have encountered many criminals who have changed their lives for the better. They’ve become law abiding citizens creating their own destiny sans crime. But, there are so many more, who have been socialized or are just hardwired to commit crime that intensive cognitive behavioral restructuring is useless. Some people are simply “born bad”, and when you couple this wiring with drug use, ESPECIALLY decades long drug use, the chances for behavior modification are slim to none. Again, these people make victims out of society’s citizens, thus they must be removed.

    Many criminals are drug addicts who commit crime to feed their habits
    You’ve stated that alcohol seems to be the prevalent substance that is a catalyst to crime. I will need to see research and data concerning this. My experience has been that drugs are by in large the primary component to crime. Alcohol is a depressant and in my opinion, the primary criminal offshoot of this substance are DUI’s. Heroin and methamphetamine, two of the most highly addictive substances today, decrease logical thinking to such an extreme fault, that criminality is almost a certainty. This addiction drives a person to do whatever is NECESSARY to feed it. It really seems as if you are attempting to minimize the obvious. I have always said that if drugs were not present, the crime rate would be reduced significantly. I won’t even address the side effects of drug use that lends itself to crime (i.e. drug induced hallucinations and paranoia to name two),

    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.
    Again, I need to see this data, because it certainly does not seem accurate even if you retrieved if from the FBI statistical database. Look, violent crime IS higher than ever. Now it may not seem like it in some parts of the country, however urban/metropolitan areas that have more people per square capita than lets say middle america, certainly see their share of increased rampant violence. May I turn your attention to the great state of Illinois and the wonderful city of Chicago that now has an imposed curfew for juveniles because of the increased murder rashes. Or might I turn your attention to the state of California who by in large has to reduce their prison population as ordered by the supreme court due to prison overcrowding. Let’s look at that state’s violent crime data. I am going to take this statement as your effort to be provocative.

    I don’t think tougher penalties act as a deterrent.
    The state of Texas has a penalty of life or death for murder. In the state of California you can plea down to manslaughter and serve on average 10 years before release. Here’s a pop quiz? Which state has the highest murder statistics? If you really want to reach… lets look at middle eastern countries and their archaic albeit extreme, punishments.

    • Stacy: thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate the “education” you’ve given me and your ideas. I liked the fact you lean more toward the hard data (FBI crime statistics, for instance) where my thoughts are based, to a large degree, on my personal experiences in courtrooms and talking/working with criminals for years. I may have not mentioned it or wasn’t strong enough in my blog with the idea that truly dangerous people must simply be put away. I don’t favor the death penalty (that should be the next blog!) but I do think that people who are “born bad” as you say, should be removed from society to avoide further harm to us all. Thanks again for your thoughts. Colin

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