Some years back while visiting a relative in a rural area and I saw two Sheriffs cars go by with their lights on. I commented on the rare sight and my relative said, “Yea, they’ve been out a lot recently. A drunk driver wrecked his car and knocked down a hundred yards of fence. We’ve had an outbuilding set on fire by an arsonist, some stolen equipment and a wife beating.”
“Holy cow!” I replied, knowing just how sedate the country usually is, “sounds like you’ve developed a little crime problem out here.”
My relative looked askance at me and said, “We don’t have a crime problem, we have a Earl problem.”
Turned out that one guy committed all the destructive acts. When the Sheriff finally got enough evidence to haul him off, the little crime wave disappeared.
I thought about this little episode while reading Carl From Chicago’s post on the drug war.
Carl argues that legalizing drugs might not reduce the prison population significantly because most people doing the majority of the time are drug dealers who consciously chose to follow the selfish, violent path of a drug dealer. If we legalize drugs, those same people who chose to commit drug crimes will simply turn to committing other crimes.
I think Carl identifies a central flaw in the way we as a society and polity think about crime and punishment. Clearly, we exhibit a profound bias towards focusing on the negative acts committed and not on the actual individuals who choose to commit the act. For example, we talk about having a drunk-driving problem, a drug problem, a burglary problem, a bad-check problem, a domestic violence problem etc. When we collect statistics and have political debates, we focus on measuring and debating the events themselves and pay very little attention to the people who chose to create the event.
I think this causes us to miss a vital element of many different social pathologies: It’s the same damn individuals committing all the many different types of crimes! As a society, we don’t have a crime problem, we have a Earl problem.
Studies that focus on examining criminals instead of criminal acts all show that the specific criminal act that led to any individual’s incarceration represented a mere tip of the iceberg of the crimes that the individual committed. People who chose to commit one specific crime seldom show scruples against committing others. Most people who cause accidents by driving drunk have significant criminal records unrelated to drunk driving. The otherwise-law-abiding person that drives drunk and causes accidents is relatively rare. Most of those events occur by accidental misjudgment which the individual does not repeat. We see the same pattern in virtually every other class of criminal conduct. A criminal individual systematically violates the law in matters large and small until the justice system holds them accountable for one or more discrete acts.
Prior to the 20th century, debates over social pathologies centered not on specific criminal events but on the character of the people who committed the crimes. I think the shift in the 20th century to focusing on the criminal event occurred due to metric bias. Metric bias, also called the street lamp effect, causes an observer to attached significance to a phenomenon based on the ease of measuring that phenomenon. In the case of crime, measuring criminal events proved much easier than measuring criminals. As scientific approaches to social problems grew more popular, metric bias caused the public debate to shift from the criminal to the crime. This distortion reached its zenith in the 1960s-’70s when many argued that individual criminals were not moral agents capable of choice but were instead mere epiphenomena of broad, stochastic social forces. The idea that any particular criminal usually committed a vast array of crimes disappeared almost entirely from public discourse. The policy results of this distorted view proved disastrous.
In response, we returned in the late-’80s to the older method of focusing on the criminal and not the crime. Broken-window policing and three-strikes sentencing represented a return to the older concept of targeting the individual criminal instead of the crime. New York vastly decreased subway crime merely by focusing on stopping turnstile jumpers. Turned out, people who intended to commit muggings seldom bothered to pay their toll. Likewise, three-strikes sentencing looks at a long-term pattern of criminality, regardless of whether the crimes bear any relation to one another. It focuses on locking up individuals who repeatedly chose to commit crimes instead of punishing individuals for each discrete crime that they get caught committing.
So, I think Carl made a good point. Although we have many good reasons to think that legalizing drugs will produce more benefit than harm, we shouldn’t expect that legalizing drugs will produce a great windfall in the form of a drop in crime. When Prohibition ended, organized crime didn’t evaporate. The same people just moved into other criminal activities. We can safely predict that people who choose to commit crimes in today’s legal climate will choose to commit crimes in a future legal climate.
We should continue to focus on identifying and deterring or restraining our Earls and less on specific crimes.