8 Oct 2010

Crime and punishment

I get a better view of US laws from Holland.

First, we have (via TM) a judge who is taking the cost of punishment into account, i.e., how much it costs to put someone away. This is a good use of cost-benefit that's been stripped from judges, via three-strikes type laws passed by populist politicians who think that "lock 'em up" solves problems.

Next, we have an interesting example of legal entrapment by a sheriff:

The trick was that the sheriff was at the end of the next offramp, searching everyone who stopped "on suspicion."

Third, I heard from a friend that her son was pulled over ("driving while hippie") in Tennessee. After heavy pressure, he admitted to possessing some marijuana. The fine was $2,400 plus one year probation. I'm going to call this "fiscal law and order." Nobody was harmed by this hippie van, but cops are pursuing easy targets for money, instead of solving crimes.

Fourth, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a law changing the penalty for possession of less than one ounce of pot from a misdemeanor to a citation (like a traffic ticket). The fine is still $100. Pot is now officially decriminalized (but not legal).

Fifth, here's a handy guide to the price of weed, updated by buyers wiki-style. It only covers the US. But weed costs about $10/g here (about $35 for an eighth). Good medical MJ costs about $44 in California (in fact, it's better than Dutch MJ). So much for a massive drop in prices fallowing decriminalization.

Sixth, I smoke marijuana here, in California and in other parts of the world. Nobody has died. Maybe that's because I have a PhD? According to this paper [pdf], more education means less crime. Hear that politicians?

Bottom Line: Laws should address actions that are harmful to society (murder, rape, theft), not actions that some people dislike (being gay, using drugs, driving "fast"). Can we get some more civilization please?

Addendum: Listen to this fascinating podcast on the "medicalization" of depression. It's not that you feel bad, but that we can sell you a drug that will treat your "disease." Wow.


  1. At least it's on the California ballot this year - http://yeson19.com/

  2. JR emails:

    "Your second and third items are not a "view of US laws". They are isolated examples (and, I believe, atypical ones when viewed in the context of what hundreds of thousands of police officers across the country do every day of every week of every month of every year) describing particular incidents involving the (arguably) misguided behavior of individual police officers. (At the most, these two examples may indicate that a couple of individual police departments are implementing particular policies or procedures that are misguided.)

    [a judge who is taking the cost of punishment into account...]

    I don't think you actually read the NYT article about this subject. The article isn't about "a judge who is taking the cost of punishment into account." It's about a decision by the State of Missouri sentencing advisory commission to make that information available to all judges in that state, who may (or may not) then choose to take the information into consideration when deciding what sentences to impose upon criminals after they are convicted. The two-sentence summary you've provided is not only incorrect, it does a great disservice to the issues involved by warping and over-simplifying them. There is certainly an economic issue involved, but there are also other crucial issues involved that have little or nothing to do with an economic analysis. The newspaper article does a decent job of conveying the complexity and some of the nuances of the debate. I'd recommend reading it.

    In addition, the one-sentence summary of three-strikes-type laws you've offered is also deeply flawed and -- again -- a gross over-simplification. For example, the first of the three-strikes laws was actually a Proposition passed overwhelmingly by California voters (not a law "passed by populist politicians." (By the way, despite the fact that I was working as a criminal prosecutor in CA at the time, I voted against that Proposition. Surprised? I'll bet you are. Over-generalizing and failing to consider the nuances of issues often leads to errors.)"

  3. JR continues:

    "[legal entrapment by a sheriff...]

    I don't know what the article you've linked to says, or what the facts really are. The link isn't working on my computer. So I'm basing this comment specifically, and only, on what you've stated about the facts involved.

    What you've described is not "legal entrapment." "Entrapment" is a very specific legal concept in criminal law. If you use the term in the criminal law context, you should use it correctly.

    It doesn't help your credibility on issues that you know a lot about when you focus on issues that are outside your areas of expertise and make incorrect, poorly-worded, and uninformed comments such as the above items in this post.

    [more education means less crime...]

    As for the conclusion of this paper entitled "The Crime Reducing Effect of Education" -- i.e., that "improving education can yield significant social benefits and can be a key policy tool in the drive to reduce crime" -- all I can say is "Duh!!!" These people needed PhD's to come up with that gem of wisdom? These people got a major grant to spend their time coming up with that unique and extraordinary insight? Jeez. Stuff like this gives academia a bad name. The grant funding they received in order to reach a conclusion that has been painfully obvious for decades (if not for more than a century) would have been better spent actually improving access to a quality educational system for poor under-privileged kids.

    Finally, concerning this "Addendum," I'm flabbergasted. (I should mention that I haven't listened to the podcast. But I do have some educational background and experience concerning the relevant issues, and a solid understanding of how complex and difficult they are.) In one sentence you've flippantly disposed of a very serious subject involving many profound, challenging, complicated, interrelated issues that entire books could be written about. Wow. Again, this does not help your credibility on subjects regarding which you have expertise."

  4. @JR1 -- abuse of the law is abuse, no matter how common. With drugs law, enforcement abuse is more comon (compared to enforcement on murder, e.g.) because (1) druggies are a soft target and (2) asset seizure laws make them easy to tax for police budgets. Read up on it.

    Yes, I read the article. Yes, it's about cost-benefit.

    3 strikes is populist because voters thought they were getting justice. what they got instead was bad sentencing. I prefer to give judges discretion.

    Prosecutors (maybe not you) have been using 3 strikes and mandatory minimums to squeeze a lot of people, some of them criminals, for more than they are worth.

    Yes, you're a lawyer with criminal law experience, but you are an "isolated example"

    Read this: http://www.economist.com/node/16636027?story_id=16636027

  5. @JR2 -- please tell me how this was NOT entrapment.

    The crime-education paper is useful in that it identifies causation. Many people claim that criminals are born (e.g., minorities or poor people) not made. This paper identifies the social failure that creates criminals.

    Oh, and you need to listen to that podcast. Your bias is getting ahead of you.

  6. JR adds: "Your bottom-line opinions may not change despite what I wrote in my comments, but the way in which you expressed yourself in the original blog post remains open to significant criticisms. It's not only the ultimate conclusions (i.e., your bottom-line opinions) that matter; the presentation and analysis of facts, the discussion of legal issues, and a host of other things that should precede reaching conclusions also matter. (Unless, of course, one doesn't care about holding opinions that are well-reasoned. But I believe you do care about that.)"

    Yes, I do care about being reasonable, rational and presenting a accurate summary.

    But I also have to get on with life. All I've done in these comments is given you more background to the point. If you needed that to be convinced, then fine. Some people just want to hear an opinion, but true understanding requires that you take that, do research and then integrate it into your own thought. Most blog posts are bad for that (too many words), but conversation over drinks works.

    You owe me a drink :)

  7. David,

    Regarding your "Bottom Line", I can certainly agree that we should focus on things that are (directly) harmful to others in society, rather than trying to micro-manage private morality.

    However, don't you think that speed limits - and road worthiness tests for that matter - qualify here? It depends on where and how obviously, but seems to me that they can play a crucial role in correcting for a large and very real negative externality: I have virtually zero control for other people's driving habits even though I stand at risk of any reckless behaviour on their part. (The multitude of different risk premiums among drivers obviously exacerbating the problem in the process...)

    From what I've read, there generally seems to be a pretty strong correlation between between lower speed limits and reduced accidents (and vice versa). See Tables 10 and 11 in this document for example: http://goo.gl/K1uW

    If legislation is inefficient because, say, drivers don't obey speed limits, then you can either increase fines and enforcement numbers... Or, probably better in terms of long-run costs and effectiveness, use traffic calming.

  8. @Stickman -- speed limits are a poor example of negative externalities, since it's so easy to get feedback from the people around you. Traffic calming is designed to make people aware of their surroundings. From what I've read on research, people do not pay attention to speed limits as much as "what feels right," so those (and fines) are not getting at the core issue (safe driving).

    I've got a post on this going up later this week.

    BL: Even if there were no speed limits, we would have civilized driving, either b/c people would care about other people or b/c people would not want to get a ticket/penalties for damage to others from reckless driving.

    ps/India's chronic car accidents, etc. has more to do with poverty and culture than traffic laws :)

  9. Price comparisons of California MJ and that you find in the Netherlands are probably unfair without more details, such as the price for power, the percentage grown outside versus indoors under grow lights. Also, I understand the Dutch excessively tax MJ you buy. The real value comes in growing your own.


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