Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow About Sentencing Policy

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who studies human irrationality, discussed many subjects last night on Charlie Rose. It was an intellectual bonanza for someone who’d tuned in only to hear Charlie’s panel of pundits analyze the Republican primary horse race.

At one point, Kahneman even alluded to criminal sentencing. To illustrate a concept he called the “anchoring effect,” he referred to an experiment involving the sentencing patterns of German judges.


But Kahneman and Rose did not tackle the clear application of Kahneman’s work to the American prison boom of the past three decades. The connection needs to be made, because the correctional behemoth we’ve created is a leading example of irrationality on a gargantuan scale.

On an intuitive level, we somehow think more prisons and longer sentences will always make us safer. Now it's time to consider the consequences of thinking too fast: warehoused lives, squandered public treasures, and problematic effects on public safety.

It’s time to think not only fast, slow.

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