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The Total Costs of Crime and Criminals

Alternative Social Attitudes towards Crime

A recent article in the NYT, “Missouri Tells Judges Cost of Sentences” by Monica Davey, states that when making their sentencing decisions, judges in Missouri are now provided with the cost to the state associated with alternative forms of punishment as a factor to consider:

When judges here sentence convicted criminals, a new and unusual variable is available for them to consider: what a given punishment will cost the State of Missouri…

The practice has touched off a sharp debate. It has been lauded nationally by a disparate group of defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives, who consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously … as Judge Wolff sees it, sentencing costs would never be a consideration in the most violent cases, just in circumstances where prison is not the only obvious answer…

But critics — prosecutors especially — dismiss the idea as unseemly. They say that the cost of punishment is an irrelevant consideration when deciding a criminal’s fate and that there is a risk of overlooking the larger social costs of crime…

The shift here comes at a dire time for criminal justice budgets around the country, as states try to navigate conflicting, politically charged demands: to keep people safe and also cut costs …

…Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, argue[s] that Missouri’s plan counts certain costs but fails to measure others — the societal price, for instance, if someone not incarcerated commits another crime.

 

The Total Costs of Crime and Criminals

The total private plus social costs to society associated with a particular crime include:

  1. The direct private costs to the victim of the crime;
  2. The direct social (state) costs associated with apprehending the criminal (police system);
  3. The direct social (state) costs associated with trying the criminal (court system);
  4. The direct social (state) costs associated with punishing the criminal (prison and parole system);
  5. The indirect social cost to citizens associated with
    • Living in fear of potential future crimes of a similar nature;
    • Individuals taking action to mitigate potential future crimes of a similar nature (locking doors, installing security systems, etc.);
    • Maintaining the legal system (police force, court system, prison system, parole system, etc.) associated with apprehending, trying, and punishing criminals.

The total private plus social costs to society associated with a particular criminal include:

  1. The direct private costs to the victim of the crime the criminal committed;
  2. The direct social (state) costs associated with apprehending the criminal for the crime he committed (police system);
  3. The direct social (state) costs associated with trying the criminal for the crime he committed (court system);
  4. The direct social (state) costs associated with punishing the criminal for the crime he committed (prison and parole system)
  5. The indirect social cost to citizens associated with
    • Living in fear of potential future crimes that criminal might commit;
    • Individuals taking action to mitigate potential future crimes that criminal might commit (locking doors, installing security systems, etc.);
    • Maintaining the legal system (police force, court system, prison system, parole system, etc.) to prepare for apprehending, trying, and punishing that criminal for future crimes he may commit.
  6. The direct private and social costs (1 – 4) associated with any future crimes that criminal might commit, given the punishment he incurs for the current crime

As Paul Cassell states in the article, if judges are going to consider the cost of alternative forms of punishment, then they should consider the total long term costs to society associated with each form of punishment (costs 4, 5, and 6), not just the direct cost to the state (cost 4).

 

Alternative Social Attitudes towards Crime

I abstract here from the issue of using the justice system to make the victim whole, since the nature of many criminals and their crimes is such that righting the wrong done to the victim is not possible.  Instead, I focus solely on the punishment handed out to the criminal for the crime he committed.

Generally speaking, one might argue that society can take some combination of four alternative views toward crime and punishment: (1) society should choose sentences so as to punish criminals, (2) society should choose sentences so as to rehabilitate criminals, (3) society should choose sentences so as to deter future crime, and/or (4) society should choose sentences so as to minimize the social costs associated with criminals.

1. Society Should Punish Criminals

There’s a whole legal and philosophical literature on the nature of criminal sentencing, as addressed in “Legal Punishment,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Who should decide what kinds and what levels of sentence should be attached to different offences or kinds of offence: what should be the respective roles of legislatures, of sentencing councils or commissions, of appellate courts, of trial judges, of juries? By what criteria should such decisions be made: how far should they be guided by a retributivist principle of proportionality, requiring punishments to be ‘proportionate’ in their severity to the seriousness of the crime; how far by consequentialist considerations of efficient crime-prevention? What kinds of punishment should be available to sentencers, and how should they decide which mode of punishment is appropriate for the particular offence.

If society believes criminals should be punished for their crimes, the optimal punishment to which a criminal should be subject is dependent on the particular philosophical view that society takes.  However, from a legal and economic standpoint, the punishment for a given crime should be greater, the greater are the costs to society associated with the crime (see section above, “The Total Costs of Crime and Criminals“).

2. Society Should Rehabilitate Criminals

According to Nick Smith, University of New Hampshire Department of Philosophy,

Although rehabilitation is often considered a type of punishment for criminal offenders, its objectives are therapeutic rather than punitive. While some theories of punishment claim that criminals deserve to suffer for their crimes, the rehabilitative ideal views criminal behavior more like a disease that should be treated with scientific methods available to cure the offender. Many convicts suffer from mental and physical illness, drug addiction, and limited opportunities for economic success and these problems increase the likelihood that they will engage in criminal activity. If we simply incarcerate the convict while she “pays her debt to society,” she will likely reenter it with all of the obstacles that drove her to crime still in place.... A rehabilitative approach would attempt to treat the underlying cause of her transgressions so that she can return to society to become a full and productive citizen...

Rehabilitation thus takes many forms in practice, including psychological analysis, drug and alcohol treatment, high school equivalency and other educational programs, vocational training, relationship counseling, anger-management therapy, religious study, and any other service required to meet the needs of particular offenders.

If society believes criminals should be rehabilitated, as indicated in the paragraphs above, the optimal rehabilitation program to which a criminal should be subject is that which will address the particular problem that caused the individual to commit the crime in the first place.  In this case, the total social costs associated with the crime would not seem to play any role when considering the optimal rehabilitation program for the individual who committed that crime.

3. Society Should Deter Crime

Again, from “Legal Punishment,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[T]he most plausible immediate good that a system of punishment can bring is the prevention of crime: a rational consequentialist system of law will define as criminal only conduct that is in some way harmful; in preventing crime we will thus be preventing the harms that crime causes; and punishment can prevent crime by incapacitating, or deterring, or reforming potential offenders.

Under a deterrent, or consequentialist, approach to crime, criminals are punished either by (1) incarcerating them, so they cannot commit (more) crimes; and/or (2) setting punishment levels so as to deter other criminals from committing the same crime; and/or (3) rehabilitating criminals so as to remove their incentives to commit future crimes.

The expected social costs associated with potential future crimes committed by that criminal are equal to the probability he will commit future crimes, times the cost to society of those crimes:

Expected Social Costs of Criminal’s Future Crimes

= [Probability Commit Future Crimes] x [Cost of Crimes Committed]

If criminals are to be punished by incarcerating them so they cannot commit more crimes, then from a law and economics perspective, the duration of incarceration should be greater when the probability the criminal will commit future crime(s) is higher and when the total costs of the crime(s) the criminal might commit  (see section above, “The Total Costs of Crime and Criminals“) are greater.

The expected punishment a criminal will receive for committing a crime is equal to the probability the criminal will be caught times the punishment if he does get caught:

Expected Punishment

= [Probability Criminal will be Caught] x [Punishment for Crime]

If punishment levels are set so as to deter others from committing the same crime, then the punishment associated with a particular crime should be set so that the expected punishment is sufficient to deter criminals from committing that crime.  More specifically, as discussed above in the section “1. Society Should Punish Criminals”, the punishment for the crime should be greater when the total costs of the are greater.  At the same time, the optimal punishment should also be higher when the probability of being caught is lower, so as to provide a large enough expected punishment to serve as a deterrent.

4. Society Should Minimize the Social Costs of Criminals

If society chooses to minimize the total expected costs of crime, then it should set punishment for committing crimes so as to minimize:

Expected Cost of Crime

= [Probability Commit Crimes] x [Cost of Crimes Committed]

 

= [Probability Commit Crimes] x

{ [Probability Criminal Not Caught] x [Cost of Crime When Criminal Not Caught]

+ [Probability Criminal Is Caught] x [Cost of Crime When Criminal Is Caught] }

 

 

= [Probability Commit Crimes] x

 

{ [1 - Probability Criminal Is Caught] x [Cost of Crime When Criminal Not Caught] 

+ [Probability Criminal Is Caught] x [Cost of Crime When Criminal Is Caught] }

 

Costs of Crime (from section above)

a.    cost to victim of crime

b.    cost to society of apprehending and trying criminals

c.     cost to society of punishment/rehabilitation of criminals

d.    cost to society of expected future crime

i.    Prophylactic measures to prevent/mitigate crime

ii.   Actual direct costs of crime

iii.  Police, courts, prisons systems to deal with crime

 

So then to minimize Expected Cost of Crime, need to:

•  Minimize [Probability Commit Crimes] ↔

•   Optimize police presence

•   Optimize rehabilitation

•  Maximize [Probability Criminal Is Caught] ↔

•   Optimize police presence

•  Minimize [Cost of Crime When Criminal Not Caught] ↔

•   Minimize a + d  ↔

•  Optimize prophylactic measure

•  Optimize police presence

•  Minimize [Cost of Crime When Criminal Is Caught] ↔

•   Minimize a + b + c  ↔

•  Optimize police presence

•  Optimize punishment/rehabilitation 

Summary of Cost of Crime Minimization Measures:

To minimize scoiety's cost of crime, society must optimize each measure (police presence, rehabilitation, prophylactic measures), rather than maximize them. This is due to the fact that taking measures is costly, and it might not be optimal to spend a lot of resources to prevent or mitigate crime if the costs of that crime are low relative to the costs of prevention.

Costs to society will be minimized under a system which

  • Incarcerates criminals who are expensive to rehabilitate;
  • Rehabilitates criminals who are inexpensive to rehabilitate;
  • Sets incarceration terms higher than it might otherwise to deter potential criminals from comitting crimes;
  • Sets a police presence higher than it might otherwise to use as a deterrence so as to minimize need for courts and penal systems; and
  • Takes mitigation measures that are relatively inexpensive.

What it comes down to is spending more money up front to prevent crime, rather than spending more money down the line to deal with crime.  In other words, society must invest in minimizing crime.  Generally speaking, this doesn’t happen to the degree it should because: (1) Like any investment, this requires spending money up front for an uncertain future result.  People tend to prefer to spend today’s money on something that will benefit them today, rather than foregoing benefits today in return for something that may or may not end up benefitting them in the future.  (2) Most action tends to deal with putting out today’s fires, at the expense of being able to strategically plan today for the future.

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