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The best way to end mass incarceration is to catch more criminals
Less crime and less punishment
A couple of years ago, Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø published a really interesting paper about the impact of a law passed in Denmark that allowed Danish police to add anyone charged with a felony to a DNA database, increasing the share of arrestees added from roughly 4 percent to about 40 percent.
So what was the impact? The authors “find that DNA registration reduces recidivism within the following year by up to 42%.”
That’s a big reduction. Obviously having your DNA sample in some database does not have a lot of rehabilitative power per se. But as with the classic fingerprinting1 of perpetrators, once someone is in the system, it’s easier to catch them if they commit a crime. And indeed, the authors find that databased criminals are less likely to re-offend, but if they do re-offend, they are more likely to be caught. Using some math, they “estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability” and conclude that “a 1% higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2%.” So what do all these registered former offenders do instead of crimes? Well, they “find that DNA registration increases the likelihood that offenders find employment, enroll in education, and live in a more stable family environment.” This is a great paper and a very cool result, and I think it makes a strong case for the expanded use of DNA databases.
But I think it also suggests a better way of thinking about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States than the mode that takes a negative view toward all punitive measures.
In this case, raising the odds that a person will go to prison conditional on the commission of a crime lead to a disproportionately large reduction in the odds of offending, meaning fewer person-hours of prison rather than more. Incarceration is costly, cruel, and has certain properties that tend to encourage crime. We should try to create a society that is dedicating fewer resources to locking people in cages in abusive conditions, and the best way to do that is to reduce the number of crimes being committed.
Virtuous cycles of crime reduction
The United States has an unusually high level of serious violent crime, especially murder. This arguably stems from some of our deeply entrenched social problems, but I think more profoundly from the extremely large number of firearms floating around in the U.S. Either way, given the high levels of crime, it is striking that we have a perfectly average amount of police spending for a developed country. And when violent criminals do get caught, our system punishes them extremely harshly because there is no worse look for a judge or district attorney than for someone who was already caught doing Crime A going back on the street to do Crime B.
Alex Tabarrok depicts the results in this shocking chart, showing the United States as an extreme outlier in incarceration, even with an extraordinarily normal amount of policing.
Police presence on the streets reduces crime for the same reason that DNA databases do — odds of detection. You don’t want to break the law in full view of the cops or if the odds are really good that an officer is about to come around the corner and see you.
So suppose you implement the DNA database, and that reduces crime. With less crime, you have less prison spending. With less prison spending, you can afford to hire more cops. Hiring more cops should reduce crime even further, which in turn means even less prison spending.
What can you do with the further savings? You can invest in better street lights and summer jobs programs, both of which have a good track record of reducing crime. Expanding the availability of drug and alcohol treatment through Medicaid expansion also seems really good, but honestly, active labor market policy and widely available health care are just good ideas on their own terms. The key common element among street lights, preventative security policy, and the DNA database is that they increase the odds of detection, which lets us dole out less punishment without being “soft on crime.”
Catching criminals is underrated
I’ve had a doorbell security camera for a while, which seems to have been slightly effective at deterring people from stealing packages off our porch. Our house is also adjacent to an alley. We have a fence that’s really hard to climb over, but a few months ago someone grabbed a few garbage bins from neighboring houses, stacked them together, and used the stack to vault over our fence and break into our garage.
After that I got a second camera that covers the alley to try to clarify to people that scaling the fence is a bad idea. We haven’t had any problems since, but a few weeks ago a police detective knocked on my door asking if I had any camera footage from the previous evening that included a guy running through the alley. The detective didn’t fully explain what he was looking into, but I gather he was seeking evidence about the sequence of events that linked a crime that occurred north of my house to a suspect found to the south. And I did in fact have video of someone running south through the alley at the relevant time, so I handed it over.
I tweeted about my cooperation in this matter, which of course led to some deranged replies that are part of a larger Twitter bit about how these cameras are bad.
Back in normietown, I think people understand that it’s good to help the police with criminal investigations. But even in normietown, the idea that it’s good to catch criminals strikes me as somewhat underrated. Low clearance rates are typically raised as a polemical point by anti-police leftists to argue that cops are useless. But I think the point of the DNA study is that it’s a real issue: if the odds of getting caught were higher, people would commit less crime, and because the elasticity with respect to detection is so high, this leads to less aggregate punishment.
Technology is good
We live in an era of incredible advances in image recognition software. My iPhone, for example, knows that these are all pictures of me. Sometimes I have hair, sometimes I have a beard, sometimes I’m in sunglasses, sometimes I’m next to Michelle Obama, and sometimes it’s a photo of my passport which includes a photo of me.
This is pretty incredible technology. And you’d think that combining it with today’s video surveillance would be a good way to catch criminals like this gentleman doing carjackings in Ward 7.
This seems like a big mistake. Obviously, facial recognition software is imperfect, and even perfectly functioning technology could lead the police in the wrong direction one way or the other. But as an argument for categorically excluding it, that doesn’t make sense. The police and the courts make heavy use of eyewitness accounts, both as formal testimony and also as more casual “oh, yeah, I saw that guy, he was _____” over the course of investigations. Indeed, the whole reason MPD is publicizing the video of this carjacker is they are hoping a human being will use their own facial recognition wetwear2 to identify the person. But eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Just as with DNA (or, for that matter, fingerprints), the technology doesn't need to be perfect to be useful. Cops are more likely to get it right the more information they have at their disposal.
I think the real issue is that there’s a set of people who approach every public safety issue from an anti-enforcement perspective. But if you believe that there should be police forces that patrol public areas and arrest criminals, then one basic issue is that this work is very labor intensive. To do it without exploding costs, we need productivity-increasing technology. And things like DNA databases, cameras, and facial recognition systems achieve that.
The merits of monitoring
People should talk more about the success of South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Program, which has since spread to other states.
The program is for people who’ve been convicted of alcohol-related offenses and essentially revokes their license to drink. People in the program need to either take a breathalyzer twice a day or else wear a continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet. If you break the rules by drinking or failing to comply with the monitoring, you face a swift and certain sanction of a day or two in jail. This induces a high level of compliance and has led to fewer drunk driving arrests and ultimately less mass incarceration.
The late Mark Kleiman, whose wisdom on public safety issues I have missed over the past three years, was very bullish on this program and always aspired to extend the model to create a superior form of parole.
He outlined his idea in the 2010 book “When Brute Force Fails,” arguing that we should use modern technology to surveil parolees more intensively. Substance abuse is involved in a large share of criminal activities, so parolees could be put on mandatory abstinence programs modeled on 24/7 Sobriety. These days it is also relatively cheap and easy to give people GPS monitoring bracelets like those often used for house arrest. If you’re caught breaking into someone’s house and then outfitted with a monitoring bracelet, you know that if you commit another burglary, there’s going to be clear evidence that you were present in the house during the time when it was broken into.
People who don’t like the idea of punishing crimes will hate this idea because it’s punitive. But people who are genuinely troubled by mass incarceration as a phenomenon will see that — as with the DNA database — if you punish people in a way that reduces recidivism, you ultimately end up with fewer people in prison. The finding from the DNA paper that people in the database are more likely to get jobs, pursue an education, and have stable family situations is also reassuring. Being in prison is horrible, but many people are genuinely better off when forced to stop committing crimes. Ultimately, if we have a solid track record of successfully preventing crime with these kinds of measures, we can let people out of prison much sooner and make long prison sentences a genuinely rare phenomenon.
Re-reframing the conversation
One of the very first print pieces I was assigned at the American Prospect had the thesis that mass incarceration is bad. But the frame of the piece was that at the then-current margin in the mid-aughts, further investments in prison beds had a poor cost-benefit profile compared to other ways of assuring public safety.
In the political context of the time, when incarceration rates were rising and the prior Democratic administration had been a proponent of longer prison sentences and more prison construction, we were taking a bold progressive stance.
But I also actually believed in it!
I thought the rampant expansion of the American prison system was cruel, expensive, and relatively ineffective at controlling crime. Over the past 15-20 years, I think that’s become even more true because technological advances have given us a wider range of other things we can invest in. But during the same period, the conventional wisdom in progressive circles shifted in a weird way to the idea that catching and punishing criminals is presumptively illegitimate and we should aim not for less cruelty and expense, but for less law enforcement altogether. As long as the pre-existing fall in crime rates continued, it was fine to sort of mix and match these two very different concepts. But a period of rising crime has shown, I think, that anti-enforcement politics is completely doomed — it’s just going to hand the steering wheel over to the most braindead style of “lock ’em up” politics when we should be trying to keep people out of prison by discouraging them from committing crimes.
While fingerprinting seems to be largely uncontroversial, people are leerier of using DNA, even though the quality of fingerprint evidence is really low and DNA represents a big improvement.
If you haven’t read about the Fusiform Face Area, I highly recommend it. People have a highly specialized area of the brain for recognizing people’s faces, which is why some people have a really uncanny knack for it.