Thursday, June 12, 2008

James Q. Wilson and Mark Kleiman on crime & punishment

The heavyweight conservative social scientist James Q. Wilson (I think it is accurate to describe him as a prominent neo-conservative in the 1970s-1980s Public Interest meaning of that term) has guest-posted a series of items on the Volokh Conspiracy group blog presenting his views on what we know about the problem of crime in the US and what to do about it.

Agree with him or not, his arguments are worth reading. But in his latest post Wilson offers a cautionary word that suggests his venture into blogging may not have been an entirely satisfying experience (partly because he made the mistake of reading the "comments" threads).
A lot of readers have suggested that I am not a helpful blogger because I refer people to other studies for data to support my arguments. These critics are probably right. Were I devoted to blogging full time, I would quote all the data and summarize all of the studies, thereby getting nothing else done. I had assumed when I started my blog messages that people would pause, think, and look up facts. A few have, but most seem to have opinions they like to express quickly. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it doesn't advance knowledge.

Let me join the opinion parade by offering a few of my own: This country imprisons too many people on drug charges with little observable effect. A better solution can be found in Hawaii, where a judge uses his powers to keep drug users in treatment programs (it's called Project Hope; look it up). The costs of crime are hard to measure (so are the costs of confinement). The reader who does not want to drive five miles to find the book, Prison State, that discusses this in detail is wasting my time and his. [....]

Now for a few more facts, but I warn you that to believe my assertions you will actually have to go out and read something. [....]
=>The highly partisan liberal Democrat Mark Kleiman, who has also spent a lot of time thinking seriously about crime and crime control, posted a response to Wilson (James Q. Wilson on Crime) in which he agreed with him on some issues and respectfully disagreed with him on on others.

The notion of serious but respectful disagreement about important issues, even across ideological boundaries, is becoming so exotic in the blogosphere that I couldn't resist posting a bit from both sides of this exchange (below).

Yours for reasoned and reality-based discourse
(at least some of the time),
Jeff Weintraub

==============================
The Volokh Conspiracy
CAN I BE A MEANINGFUL BLOGGER
James Q. Wilson, guest-blogging, June 10, 2008 at 4:18pm]

A lot of readers have suggested that I am not a helpful blogger because I refer people to other studies for data to support my arguments. These critics are probably right. Were I devoted to blogging full time, I would quote all the data and summarize all of the studies, thereby getting nothing else done. I had assumed when I started my blog messages that people would pause, think, and look up facts. A few have, but most seem to have opinions they like to express quickly. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it doesn't advance knowledge. Let me join the opinion parade by offering a few of my own: This country imprisons too many people on drug charges with little observable effect. A better solution can be found in Hawaii, where a judge uses his powers to keep drug users in treatment programs (it's called Project Hope; look it up). The costs of crime are hard to measure (so are the costs of confinement). The reader who does not want to drive five miles to find the book, Prison State, that discusses this in detail is wasting my time and his. It is not hard to study deterring crime, but I can't imagine trying to teach someone in a blog how to do a regression analysis. I wish I could do that, but it would take time, and blog commenters seem not to have much time.

Now for a few more facts, but I warn you that to believe my assertions you will actually have to go out and read something. Intensive Probation: This is a good idea, but so far the studies of it have not suggested it lowers the crime rate. I wish it did, because it is cheaper than prison. The chief study, done at RAND, compared probationers under intensive supervision with similar ones not under such control. There as no difference in their crime rates while under supervision. There are two possible explanations for this: Either there was no difference in crime rates, or those under intensive supervision had more crimes noticed by their probation officers.

The effect of prison on crime rates: The chief study is by William Spelman and appears in the book, The Crime Drop in America, edited by Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman (2000).

The problem of the mentally ill in prison: This is a very large problem, caused in part by the dramatic drop in the number of mentally ill people in mental institutions. De-institutionalizing the mentally ill may have been a good idea, but the price we pay for it is to have a big increased of the mentally ill in prison. I would prefer that they be in mental health care institutions, but our society does not let that happen.

Abortion and crime rates: Steven Levitt is one of the authors of the study claiming, on the basis of a study of crime rates in five states where abortion was legal before Roe v. Wade and the 47 states where it became legal after Roe v. Wade, that abortion reduced the number of "unwanted children" and hence helped lower the crime rate. Levitt may be right, but to show that it is first necessary to count abortions in many states where, though it was illegal before Roe, occurred anyway to protect the health of the mother, and to control for other factors that affect the crime besides the number of "unwanted" children. ==============================
The Reality-Based Community
June 10, 2008
James Q. Wilson on Crime
Posted by Mark Kleiman

James Q. Wilson, whose book Thinking about Crime set the national crime-control agenda for a generation, has been guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. I was especially glad to see Wilson's endorsement of one of my favorite programs, the probation-supervision approach called Project HOPE.

Three other points invite some amplification.

In discussing incarceration for drug offenses, Wilson is right to point out that few people go to prison whose only offense is possessing illicit drugs; someone serving a term for "drug possession" probably pleaded down from a drug-dealing charge. But parolees are returned to prison for using drugs, which is not a very useful approach compared to HOPE-style brief jail stays.

In addition, about 700,000 people are arrested each year for simple possession of cannabis. Some are simply issued a ticket and let go, but many of them will spend time in jail awaiting arraignment: in New York City, for example, where there are 40,000 cannabis-possession arrests each year, any "custodial" arrest means about 36 hours in jail, and an arrest on a Friday generally means spending the weekend behind bars. Even a short jail stay can have catastrophic consequences, including sexual assault and suicide.

So while it's not true that we're cramming our prisons full of people who were just peacefully smoking on their water-pipes, neither is it true that being locked up for drug offenses is restricted to dealers.

Wilson also reflects on the benefits and costs of incarceration, using an approach pioneered by Ed Zedlewski: compare the costs of keeping someone in prison with the costs that person would otherwise impose by committing crimes. I think the cost of a prison cell is now higher, and the median offense rate among prisoners lower (as the prison population grows, the marginal prisoner is less active than the average prisoner) than Wilson's analysis assumes, but on the other hand there are costs of crime (direct and external costs of crime avoidance behavior) far beyond the victimization losses he calculates.

Still, if we knew that the dollar cost to taxpayers of keeping a prisoner were less than the willingness-to-pay of crime victims and others to avoid the effects of having that person free, we still wouldn't know that it was worthwhile spending that money to keep that person behind bars. A full analysis would include the cost to the prisoner, and to those who care about him, of incarceration: that is, the total willingness-to-pay to have him not incarcerated. And it would consider the opportunity cost of those prison dollars, and in particular whether some other approach might reduce crime at lower cost. Moreover, some of the crimes "prevented" by incarceration are probably merely deferred until the prisoner is released.

So I think Wilson is right to dismiss the argument that we "can't afford" to build more prisons. But dismissing that argument isn't the same as showing that the current level of incarceration is justified.

In addressing the incarceration of the mentally ill, Wilson attributes much of that problem to the de-institutionalization movement that closed the state mental hospitals and made involuntary commitment much harder. No doubt that is partly true, though many mentally ill prisoners don't have the diagnoses (primarily schizophrenia) that accounted for the bulk of involuntary commitment.

In any case, there's no legal reason to keep someone convicted of a crime who belongs in a mental hospital in prison or jail; nothing forbids the states from running locked-ward mental hospitals for convicted criminals who need hospitalization rather than incarceration. The Los Angles County jail, it has been said, is the largest mental hospital in the country. But that's true not because of the legal rules about commitment, but because Los Angeles County has decided not to run a parallel institution for its mentally ill jail inmates.

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