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  • Our Earl Problem

    Posted by Shannon Love on December 13th, 2007 (All posts by )

    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.

     

    15 Responses to “Our Earl Problem”

    1. Ginny Says:

      Shannon,

      Focusing on acts is also inherently fair – that is what our judicial system was designed to do. (Billy Budd’s Vere understands that – and Melville may not have thought he was right but most of my students do.)

      Some law-breaking may be related to that hardy American belief that laws need not be followed that don’t conform to higher laws. That argument seems to me a good deal more persuasive in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” than in the more hedonistic of druggies’ arguments. But it fuels plenty of what passes for thinking in certain groups.

      This reminds me of Harcourt’s study discussed on Volokh, which I posted about a while back. Harcourt is very careful not to draw any conclusions, all he argues is that there is an extremely close inverse relationship between prison populations and mental hospital ones. Some who are in one may be caught up when the other’s net is larger, but generally that isn’t the answer. He certainly isn’t arguing that crooks are crazy and the crazy are crooks. Nor would his study confirm that, since the base populations were (are) different (young minority males in prison, mature majority females in mental hospitals).

      My cash-strapped students are more likely to work at the prisons; our cash-strapped generation when students were likely to work the mental hospitals. Perhaps this indicates that our society can only survive so much chaos in our attempt to keep an equilibrium. For instance, I suspect I’d have a lot less patience with Earl’s burning the outhouse if my husband was driving me nuts because he was irrational. On the other hand, I might be able to tolerate some of that with a sense of humor if my private life were orderly & pleasant. I suspect that kind of observation doesn’t go very far – crimes seem more barbarous now (though that may be a function of the media)& drugs has had an effect on mental health.

    2. Ralf Goergens Says:

      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 chose to commit crimes in today’s legal climate will chose to commit crimes in a future legal climate.

      Prohibition of alcohol as well as certain drugs was the original sin that created potentially huge economic benefits for anybody willing to flaunt the law. Without these incentives, a lot of people ended up in prison would never have entertained a carrer in crime. Also, the huge windfall profits of the drug cartels have been invested in both legitimate businesses and other criminal enterprises, such as human trafficking, sales of conterfeit medicine (a huge problem in the Thrird World, and more and more in developed countries, too), trade in endangered species and their meat, hide, feathers etc, etc.

      I agree with you that we can’t stuff all those evils back into Pandora’s box, but in this case, government created most of the evils in the first place, instead of just releasing them.

    3. John Jay Says:

      “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.”

      To reverse my argument in the other post, marginal cases did choose to pursue other activites once the profit margins sharnk and business became more legitimized (with gambling, etc. taking more of a front seat) and organized crime empires shrank. There was indeed some shrinkage in organized crime, although the core families did not go away.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Ralf Goergens,

      Without these incentives, a lot of people ended up in prison would never have entertained a carrer in crime.

      I’m really not sure that is the case. The vast majority of drug dealers never make any serious money. Steven Levit examined the issue in some detail in Freakanomics. More broadly, we don’t see much of a correlation between the economy and crime. Crime soared during the 60’s (even when corrected for demographics) when economic growth was robust. It seems like common sense that people respond to economic incentives in choosing crime but the data on the matter is rather fuzzy.

      In most economic choices we don’t face the immediate prospect of having to choose between directly injuring another human being and making money. The willingness to do positive harm to another for one’s own benefit separates the criminal from the rest of the population regardless of the incentives provided.

      I just don’t have any confidence that someone who selfishly choses the dangerous and actively harmful life of a drug dealer will sudden shrug and trod off to his counter job at McDonald’s when we legalize drugs.

    5. Shannon Love Says:

      John Jay,

      There was indeed some shrinkage in organized crime, although the core families did not go away.

      Organize crime functions by coopting people in the broader community. A surprisingly small core of a few dozen people in each group direct these vast empires by getting ordinary people to commit petite crimes here and there. When prohibition ended, a lot of the broader group of coopted people dropped away but from my reading the actual core criminals, the people who ended up doing hard time, never shrank.

      More to the point, incarceration rates climbed steadily throughout the 1930’s and only reversed in 1944. The end of alcohol prohibition appears not have caused any sudden drop in imprisonment. I suspect that ending drug prohibition will also not effect rates in any sharp manner either.

      It might take many years or even decades for improvements to show as a result of ending prohibition. We should be cognizant of that fact.

    6. Ralf Goergens Says:

      I’m really not sure that is the case. The vast majority of drug dealers never make any serious money. Steven Levit examined the issue in some detail in Freakanomics. More broadly, we don’t see much of a correlation between the economy and crime. Crime soared during the 60’s (even when corrected for demographics) when economic growth was robust. It seems like common sense that people respond to economic incentives in choosing crime but the data on the matter is rather fuzzy.

      n most economic choices we don’t face the immediate prospect of having to choose between directly injuring another human being and making money. The willingness to do positive harm to another for one’s own benefit separates the criminal from the rest of the population regardless of the incentives provided.

      Yes, most drug dealers hardly make any money, but then again, almosz all people playing the lottery never win any serious money and yet many millions persist in playing. Likewise, aspiring dealers see only the big players and not the small fry that ends up in prison or an early grave.

      Most of the criminals involved in the drug trade also don’t start out as violent offenders. Trouble is, once they start out they can hardly go to the police anymore, so they and whatever stuff (I am trying to avoid the term ‘property’ here) they are holding onto are prey for anybody stronger and meaner than they are. They either become just as strong and mean, or they lose out or even die. In other words, the willingness to commit violence often is a consequence rather than the cause of drug related activities.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Ralph Goergens,

      Most of the criminals involved in the drug trade also don’t start out as violent offenders..

      I think you could have made that argument back in the 1920 but not today. Everyone who contemplates dealing drugs today knows that they will enter a violent world. I don’t think anybody thinks, “Hey, I’m going to be a non-violent drug dealer!” I’ve known of a few people who managed that by consciously staying small time, keeping their day job and selling only to a trusted peer network. They usually evolve into the “job” by supplying first themselves and then their friends and it just sort of spreads.

      For everyone else however, especially those who end up doing hard time, they knew what to expect. Heck, we’ve got an entire music genre devoted to the issue.

    8. Ralf Goergens Says:

      I think you could have made that argument back in the 1920 but not today. Everyone who contemplates dealing drugs today knows that they will enter a violent world. I don’t think anybody thinks, “Hey, I’m going to be a non-violent drug dealer!”

      I think that mostly you can’t just set out to become a drug-dealer beyond a small scale level without being inducted into the ‘trade’ by somebody who is already in. They start out young as lookouts and then move on up from there,into a system that was created by the government when it outlawed drugs.

      Granted, some certainly think ‘I want to get mine, no matter what it takes’, but you don’t start out thinking like that, you have to be desensitized to violence by older kids and adults who already live the violent life style.

      What we are looking at here is a chicken-and-egg situation – did the incentives that drug criminalization provides create violent behaviour or did the drug gangs tap into a pre-existing violent potential? I tend to think the former.

    9. Anonymous Says:

      Ginny..very interesting that your students had that reaction to Captain Vere’s dilemma.

      Billy Budd was apparently partly inspired by the mutiny that took place on the U.S. warship Somers in 1842. In that affair, Captain Mackenzie ordered the execution of 3 ringleaders of a projected mutiny, one of them being the son of the Secretary of War.

      It’s been a while since I read Billy Budd, so I may not remember correctly, but I don’t recall any imminent threat of a mutiny on Capt Vere’s ship–unlike the situation on the Somers where mutiny was at least being discussed by the “young gentlemen” and their accomplices among the crew. If this recollection is correct, then why didn’t your students feel that Vere should have simply deferred the matter to higher authority? The outcome might have been the same, but at least there would have been some slight probability that Billy could have escaped hanging.

    10. David Foster Says:

      “Anonymous” just above was me.

    11. cjm Says:

      uhm, i think someone(s) has missed a rather large point — it’s the people taking drugs who are comitting lots of crimes to support their habits. legalizing drugs won’t make drug dealers get day jobs, but it will eliminate the need for addicts/users to get so much money.

    12. Ginny Says:

      Like Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have been so dangerous if he didn’t sit on so much oil – and money, like power, tends to corrupt?

    13. Mrs. Davis Says:

      it’s the people taking drugs who are comitting lots of crimes to support their habits. legalizing drugs won’t make drug dealers get day jobs, but it will eliminate the need for addicts/users to get so much money.

      No, it won’t if drugs remain illegal for any part of the population, such as adolescents. And it would be interesting to know what proportion of drugs are consumed by those under 25.

    14. cjm Says:

      i guess that’s why teens are committing crimes to get cigarettes, alcohol, and NR rated dvd’s.

    15. Mrs. Davis Says:

      From what I can see, Kids don’t have much difficulty procuring those things, especially from parents or other cooperative adults.

      Also, with none of those is there an active person to person marketing distribution system set up. The speed with which these networks are set up is demonstrated by the underground distribution of sugary snacks in schools where they have been banned from vending machines and cafeterias. And there is big profit in illicit drug networks, at least for the higher-ups. They won’t just give up and get a real job if drugs are made legal for adults. They’ll just increase their marketing efforts to minors.