October 29, 2004

Donahue on Police and Crime: Federal Subsidies of Local Police

There's a new electronic BEPRESS journal out for public policy, nontechnical, articles. John Donohue's (September 18, 2004) "Clinton and Bush's Report Cards on Crime Reduction: The Data Show Bush Policies Are Undermining Clinton Gains" is interesting. He notes that the number of police per capita increased in the Clinton years and has declined slightly in the Bush years. Clinton had a program that was giving a billion dollars or so a year to cities to hire police, though funding was cut in half from 1999 to 2000, even before Bush took office. Of course, the most important feature of the Clinton years was a booming economy and fast-growing state and local spending generally. Donahue's data stops in 2002, and the first couple of Bush years were not prosperous ones for city governments.

Donahue says that a 10% increase in police reduces crime by about 5%, which is remarkable. If that is true, though, then we must ask why cities (and states) do not fund more police themselves, rather than waiting for federal funds for what is a local concern. The city (and state, via lower prison spending) gets the benefit, so why wouldn't they be willing to pay the cost? My main criticism of the Clinton program is that it seems like a way for the President to reward cities that support him with cash for their local spending, paid for by taxes generally, including from localities that do not support him.

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October 28, 2004

Piehl and DiLulio on whether Prison Pays; Drug Dealers

"Does Prison Pay?" by Anne Morrison Piehl and John J. DiLulio (The Brookings Review, Winter 1995) concludes generally that prison does pay: if the prisoners were not there, the cost of their crimes would be greater than the cost of their imprisonment. They except drug crimes from this, but only because they measure the benefit of imprisoning a drug dealer to be zero! In detail, here is what they say about crime generally:

Using the best available estimates of prison operating costs and the social costs of crime, we calculated that imprisoning 100 convicted felons who offended at the median rate cost $2.5 million, but that leaving them on the streets cost $4.6 million. We noted that for as much as a quarter of prisoners, other correctional options, such as probation, intensive drug treatment, or some other programs, might well be even more cost effective than imprisonment and we stressed the need for more research.

What we offer now is a new prisoner self-report survey, one that we conducted in New Jersey in 1993 of a random sample of 4 percent of recent male entrants to the state's prison population. Analysis of this survey reconfirms our earlier finding : prison pays for most state prisoners. Most state prisoners are either violent or repeat offenders who pose a real and present danger to the physical safety or property of any communities into which they might be released. For them, assuredly, prison pays.

As for drug dealers, they say,

We believe that the best estimate of the incapacitation effect (number of drug sales prevented by incarcerating a drug dealer) is zero, and therefore value drug crimes (sales and possession) at zero social cost.

Other analysts, including many whom no one can accuse of being soft on drug crime or in favor of drug legalization, have reached similar conclusions. For example, in a recent issue of Commentary, James Q. Wilson observed that prison terms for crack dealers do not have the same incapacitative effect as sentences for robbery. ... [A] drug dealer sent away is replaced by a new one because an opportunity has opened up. Many law enforcement and corrections officials have reached the same conclusion.


We are open to convincing evidence that the public is willing to pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers. And we are aware that certain types of prison-based drug treatment programs can work to reduce the chances that an offender will return to drugs or crime upon release. But let no one suppose that by incarcerating most drug offenders we succeed in averting lots of drug crimes. If there is an empirically sound argument for a no-parole policy that makes no distinctions between drug-only offenders and other prisoners, we have yet to hear it.

Note that at first they are careful to say that they believe there is no incapacitating effect of imprisoning drug dealers-- which allows for the possibility that there is a deterrent effect. But then in the last paragraph I quote, they talk about retribution but not deterrence. Sure, imprisoning one drug dealer just keeps him off the street and no other drug dealers, but it does deter other drug dealers to some extent. But there is even an incapacitative effect.

Suppose we randomly executed 10% of the executives of Fortune 500 companies each year. Would that reduce the number of executives? No-- there would just be a lot of promotions. Would it reduce the output of those companies? For sure.

The same is true for the heroin business, or for any business. Removing the leadership disrupts operations and deprives the business of its most talented and experienced managers. In addition, if the business is unethical, it deprives it of people who are in the doubly rare category of being both smart and evil.

How about "convincing evidence that the public is willing to pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers"? How about the evidence that the public *does* pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers? And it isn't because the public is unaware of this spending. It isn't an obscure policy. It is there because of public demand, not because politicians or bureaucrats or the elite media have an animus against drug dealers. What the public wants is simple and is what it gets-- lots of drug dealers put in prison. As DiIulio and Piehl point out earlier in the same article, this isn't a large proportion of their taxes, either. I don't know the public's motivation, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were independent of whether those drug dealers were replaced by others: it might well be a desire to punish evil and to rid society of evildoers. That more evildoers exist is beside the point.

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August 17, 2004

Firing Failed Probation Officers; Criminal Privacy; "Life in Prison" Sentences

The August 11 National Post reports in "Four Probation Workers Fired After Six Murdered" that after Troy Victorino failed to be arrested for probation violations twice just before he murdered six people, Governor Jeb Bush actually punished those responsible. Those fired were probation officer Richard Burrow, his supervisor, Paul Hayes; the circuit administrator, Robert Gordon; and of the three Florida state regional directors, Joe Hatem. Burrow and Hayes are protected by the "career service" process and can appeal their firings; I guess the other two are political appointees.

This is truly amazing, because the usual pattern in government is for gross incompetence to be punished by, at most, slower promotion. It says good things about Florida.

In contrast is a recent story from Canada that I have mislaid, about a murderer who walked away from the halfway house where he was living and then robbed and killed someone. The authorities did not even announce that he had left, and even after the murder they explained that to release news of he criminal's escape to the community would have violated his privacy.

Yet another story is from the August 5 Vancouver Sun. A man who committed a brutal murder in 198 in British Columbia, stabbing a woman 99 times and almost cutting her head off, is up for release on parole. His sentence was to "life in prison with no chance of parole for at least 25 years". Those 25 years expire in 2008, at which time a parole board can release him.

What is interesting, though, is that even now he can get out of prison-- and without a parole board hearing. After December 11, 2005, "escorted passes will up to the discretion of the prison warden. No parole board hearing will be necessary." He will also be eligible for "unescorted temporary absences" if the National Parole Board agrees. And even now, in 2004, he is eligible for "escorted passes" if the National Parole Board agrees. This is in the news because that board just had a hearing on him, in which 28 of his supporters, including "prison psychiatric experts" have testified. He apparently now is openly homosexual and has HIV and hepatitis. It wasn't clear whether these things were being disclosed by his supporters or his opponents.

The lesson: "life in prison without parole" means "stay in prison until the parole board feels like letting you out". The death penalty is the only sure way to guarantee that someone is punished for longer than the public eye is on the case.

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August 16, 2004

M.P. Svend Robinson's Diamond Theft; Crime in Canada

From the National Post, August 7, 2004.

Former MP Svend Robinson yesterday admitted in court that he stole an expensive diamond ring during a time of "devastating stress," but the judge ruled that losing his long-time job and suffering "public vilification" were punishment enough. The judge handed him a conditional discharge, meaning Mr. Robinson will not have a criminal record or serve any jail time.

The judge said,

"The end result is that Mr. Robinson needs help. He's fallen a long way. He has embarrassed himself. Further, he is always going to be remembered for this. This is not going to go away. As I say, the public, at least in Canada, I think, has always lived by the guiding principle: You don't kick somebody when they're down. Mr. Robinson is down."


Before he was sentenced, Mr. Robinson made a short statement to the court in which he said the ordeal has been a "shattering experience," that he recognizes the seriousness of his offence, and that it was "devastating" for him not to seek a seventh-straight seat in June's federal election.

"I feel a deep sense of remorse and shame for my totally unthinkable actions. I want to tell your honour that this isn't who I am and I am taking every possible step to ensure that this terrible mistake is never repeated."

A joint statement of facts admitted by the Crown and defence said Mr. Robinson was suffering from an unspecified strain when he stole a ring, valued by the Federal Auction Service at $64,500, from a jewelry auction in Richmond, B.C., on Good Friday, April 9.


Special prosecutor Len Doust suggested the value of the ring, Mr. Robinson's unusual behaviour at the auction after the theft, and his four-day delay in reporting the crime to police should culminate in a conviction. Mr. Robinson's detractors, Mr. Doust said, would say he was nothing more than a "common thief" who had earlier been shopping for a diamond ring for his partner, Max Riveron.

... probation for one year, and ordered him to attend psychological counselling and perform 100 hours of community service.

Mr. Ruby submitted 21 letters of support to the court, some of them written by Mr. Robinson's political opponents. The authors included Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay, Liberal MP and Cabinet minister Stephen Owen.

A later op-ed tells us more about Robinson. In my words:

1. He was a leading MP in the leftwing NDP party.

2. He demanded an end to "Iraqi genocide" in 1999-- attacking not Saddam, but the UN sanctions against him.

3. In April 2002, he went to the Middle East to express his solidarity with Yassir Arafat, which resulted in his being dumped as NDP foreign affairs critic.

4. He said, "If we are to keep our country sovereign, we must vigorously resist any further American economic, military, or social domination in Canada."

5. He is homosexual.

6. He told the police about stealing the $64,000 ring four days after stealing it. I couldn't find out whether the police were already on his trail or not-- something which seems to me crucial in deciding whether his release without a conviction was just. My guess is that they were on his trail, though. I find it hard to believe that if a customer came back to a jeweller and gave back a ring, saying he had slipped it into his pocket by mistake, that the jeweller would initiate a prosecution.

Barbara Yaffe, [email protected], had more to say in an August 14 op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. She said

But how would society have benefited from putting Mr. Robinson behind bars? He's unlikely to re-offend. The public isn't at risk.

The deterrence factor isn't terribly relevant because potential criminals are hardly likely to identify with Mr. Robinson who is in a unique situation, eing a veteran politician and international crusader for causes.

I hope Yaffe would change her mind if she thought about the implications of the policy she is proposing. Here it is, in my words:

Prominent leftwing politicians may each steal one item of up to $64,000 in value without being punished. They may, in fact, steal an unlimited number and keep the items if they are clever enough not to get caught, but if they are caught, they must return the item, and are in peril of some punishment such as probation or a fine if they are caught again.

The rational response of politicians would be for each of them to steal as many $64,000 items as they can up to the first time they get caught, and then, perhaps, to stop. Yaffee seems to think that it is working-class stiffs who need the law to deter them from grand larceny. It is odd that after the events of the previous year any Canadian would not realize that it is the prominent liberal politicians, not the average voter, whose moral principles are weak enough that they need the threat of jail to stop them from stealing.

And, I think now, my description of Yaffe's "One Free Grand Larceny" policy actually overstates its severity. Recall that Robinson "will not have a criminal record". If that means anything, it means that if he steals a second time, he cannot legally be sentenced as a two-time offender. The court, I would think, will be obliged to close its eyes to the first offense, as having been deleted from his record, and treat him as a first-time offender. He then will be able to make the same arguments as he did this time, and if he faces the same judge, he will again escape punishment or a criminal record. So what this really amounts to is an exemption from the criminal law. The only penalty for theft for a politician is that the voters may choose not to re-elect him (and the victim will be able to get back the takings, via civil suits).

In my brief stay in Canada, I've noticed a fear of crime that I haven't seen living in Bloomington, Indiana, or even during my one year in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are lots of police cars around; gated communities; even more crime in the newspapers and on TV than in America; lunch discussions of the everyone's car-theft experiences; the "bait car" posters that I posted on earlier; talk of the influence of the Hell's Angels and the huge magnitude of the drug trade; checkout clerks checking credit card signatures more suspiciously. I don't know if crime is higher in Canada than in the U.S., but I do sense that fear of crime is higher. Is this due to lack of punishment?

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