Most crimes in the United States are committed by long-term repeat
offenders, a majority of whom are eventually caught. One of every 100
adults in the United States is now behind bars; many are serving
lengthy sentences. The crimes they committed clearly did not â€œpayâ€ in
any objective sense of the term.
Why, then, did they commit
them? The short answer is that most criminals are not the dispassionate
rational actors who populate standard economic models. They are more
like impulsive children, blinded by the temptation of immediate reward
and largely untroubled by the possibility of delayed or uncertain
The evidence suggests that when hardened criminals
are reasonably sure that they will be caught and punished swiftly, even
mild sanctions deter them. But not even the prospect of severe
punishment is effective if offenders think they can get away with their
One way to make apprehension and punishment more likely
is to spend substantially more money on law enforcement. In a time of
chronic budget shortfalls, however, that wonâ€™t happen.
Kleiman suggests that smarter enforcement strategies can make existing
budgets go further. The important step, he says, is to view enforcement
as a dynamic game in which strategically chosen deterrence policies
become self-reinforcing. If offense rates fall enough, a tipping point
is reached. And once that happens, even modest enforcement resources
can hold offenders in check.
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