Friday, September 28, 2012

Certainty vs. Severity

American legislatures have constantly added to sentence lengths for a host of crimes in the last 25 years. In many states, this has been combined with a decrease in the power of the parole board due to determinate sentencing. The resulting increase in length of stay has been a key driver of the prison population boom.

In theoretical terms, the excessive focus on the severity of punishment has led farther and farther away from the realization that the Enlightenment thinker Cesare Beccaria reached way back in 1764. Namely, that if the goal is deterring crime, the certainty of punishment is far more important than the severity.

A particular case in point is drunk driving laws. Numerous states have adopted felony sentences for three or more convictions for drunken driving. In terms of actually preventing drunk driving, however, it would probably be more effective to put more cops on the road on a regular basis.

Why would this help? As things stand now, most offenders drive drunk multiple times before they are finally pulled over and charged. But if there were a significantly higher chance of being caught, potential drunk driving offenders would be more inclined to avoid committing the offense altogether.

This, at least, is what Beccaria’s certainty principle would suggest. To be sure, it would cost considerable sums of money to put more DWI checkpoints in place and engage in other crime prevention efforts. But considering how expensive it is to incarcerate someone, Beccaria’s insight could reallocate resources toward a more efficient overall strategy for dealing with drunk driving.

It would also be more just. With more consistent enforcement of the law, arrests would seem more consistent, and therefore more fair.

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