Friday, July 27, 2007

Optimal Punishment

There was a cool breeze coming off of the brief July rainshower. People were chasing frisbees out on Landis Green and the faint strum of a guitar sounded down the way. The sunset looked like an impressionist painting, stabs of orange and yellow framed by dripping moss from the old oaks . . . Alright that's enough, it was a beautiful evening and I was walking back to my office when someone siddled up next to me and asked me a question. No formal survey but wanted to know what I thought about punishment. I suppose that if I had stopped to really think about it I would have answered differently.

She proposed that a 15 year old just stole a thousand dollars worth of goods from someone. I needed to administer the punishment. Go. The obvious is that they need to repay every bit they stole. But, the punishment, should not be levied by me upon the 15 year old. Instead the punishment should be against the parents (because the child is still legally under their dominion) and the parents can distribute whatever quantity of punishment they deem appropriate. She then chimed, "Thanks," and ran away.

However, I was wondering soon after I answered whether what I said was even biblical. The person only pays back what they owe but in the Old Testament (Exodus 22:1) they pay back more and in economic theory they pay back more as well. Here's Mark with the theory behind it.

There has been a lot of work on economic models of crime and punishment. Governments have two tools at their disposal: resources to get an apprehension and conviction, and resources for punishment. So, economists have looked at where is the best allocation of resources. To give one stark example, I often saw highway patrol cars between Tucson and Phoenix. Should the Arizona government put resources in catching a lot of people and less into punishment? Or should it ctach fewer people and add to costly jail time? What is the optimal DETERRENT? Obviously, for a property crime, punishment has to be on top of the loss. Consider the jerk who stole Doug's guitar. Let's say that this guy faces a 95 percent probability of never getting caught and a 5 percent probability of apprehension, with a punishment by the court of "please return the guitar." What a deal! I wish starting a legitimate, productive business or investing in the stock market had such returns. Punishment has to be on top of making the victim whole.

Now I'm asking you the question: What do you think is appropriate?


Jeff said...

Mark! Excellent post (I'm sure I didn't type the wrong name this time.)

I like the informality of the lead-in, the spur-of-moment lightness which transitions into contemplation of a serious moral issue. I like the economy of words -- how you suggest the survey-taker's objective as relatively superficial (presumably just completing an assignment) and bring out the evolution of your take on the whole thing: first simple compliance with a request, then analysis, and finally a question for the reader.

Very nice.

My answer to the question isn't pat. From many points of view, including economic, the way we in the US deal with crime is just awful. I'm particularly concerned with the number of people who are within control of the criminal justice system; and of that population I'm most concerned with disparities in treatment. Whatever balance society wishes to achieve between making good victims' losses and punishing criminals (or attempting to deter crime via punishments), I believe we should have a true equality under law.

The unequality we currently have is demonstrated by celebrity trials (like O.J. Simpson's of course) compared with the overall success rate of prosecutors in criminal cases.

I wonder whether this inequality is also demonstrated by disparity of treatment of black males.

I'm only guessing, but I wouldn't be surprised to read that half the adult black males I come in contact with have a "record" of some kind.

A quick Google search brings up this:

More Young Black Men Have Done Prison Time Than Have Served in the Military or Earned a College Degree, Study Shows

And another:

"One in ten black men in their twenties and early thirties is in prison or jail. 22 Thirteen percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws....One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison, compared to one in every 180 whites."

Mark said...

Jeff's eyes do not deceive him: this post was tagged "Posted by Mark". However, the content was collaborative. All of the introductory writing that Jeff really liked, the stuff in regular type, was Doug's. I wrote the boring economic theory in italics. Jeff, your final comments clearly bear some relationship also with part of the previous post on "Who is poor?"