Curbing crime slowly but scientifically

Few people have studied the issue of crime deterrence more than Professor Daniel Nagin, who holds faculty appointments both at Carnegie-Mellon University and the Harvard School of Law. In a just-released bulletin, the National Institute of Justice lists some of Nagin’s findings with regard to making communities more safe.

In a publication titled “Five Things About Deterrence,” the NIJ highlights five useful — and scientifically backed — concepts every community struggling with crime should remember.

These concepts build on what some criminologist jokingly refer to as the “three Cs of deterrence”: certainty; celerity and severity. As the theory goes, any effective deterrence strategy will contain a proper combination of these elements.

To this point, Nagin observes that the certainty of being caught is a much more important deterrent than the punishment: “If criminals think there’s only a slim chance they will be caught, the severity of punishment — even draconian punishment — is an ineffective deterrent to crime.”

While this may seem counter-intuitive, Nagin’s other findings corroborate the logic. Using data from every level of the U.S. correctional population, Nagin and his research partners note that increasing the severity of punishment has a negligible effect on crime: “Laws and policies designed to deter crime are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes. Seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio is more likely to influence a criminal’s behavior than passing a new law increasing penalties.”

As Nagin further indicates, the police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished. That sense of omnipresent police does just this.

Of course, many law enforcement professionals already know this — high visibility is key to deterrence. Only through a sense that “the police are everywhere” do the forces of deterrence attach, “The police deter crime when they do things that strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught. Strategies that use the police as ‘sentinels,’ such as hot spots policing, are particularly effective,” Nagin writes.

This should come as welcome news to the citizens of Pine Bluff, as Police Chief Jeff Hubanks has made public commitments to policing through high visibility and data-driven practices. Hubanks has shown hot spot maps at several town hall meetings. Moreover, overall crime in Pine Bluff has decreased at a double digit rate almost every month of Hubank’s tenure in office.

Even so, Pine Bluff continues to have a crime problem, especially where violence is concerned. Robberies, assaults and murders all still hang as a large millstone around the neck of communal progress. But as Nagin reports, sending an offender to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime, nor is it realistic. While incarceration may serve to keep criminals off the streets temporarily, the evidence shows: “prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime. Prisons actually may have the opposite effect: Inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment.”

We’ve all heard the old adage about prisons being “crime schools.” Nagin’s research validates this point. Knowing this, we are obliged to ask what alternatives to prison might have a positive deterrent effect.

Invariably, some will suggest that increased use of capital punishment might. Unless one is willing to extend the penalty to very minor offenses, science suggests the effects would be trivial.

This observation is supported by many streams of research. In short, there is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases or has no effect on homicide rates.”

Therefore, we as a community and we as a nation have to look beyond traditional, knee-jerk and visceral reactions to crime. We must be systematic and evidence-based in our approach.

While our work in Pine Bluff is far from done, we are moving in the right direction.