Monday, February 02, 2009

Messages promoting sentence 'enhancements' may boost crime

It's that time of year, when legislators gear up the old Texas Criminal Law Generator and propose creating dozens of new crimes or jacking up criminal penalties.

The formula for creating a new crime or increasing punishments ("enhancements," to use the Orwellian capitol euphemism), is dead simple: Argue that this or that social problem has reached epidemic proportions, then suggest a more punitive response than under present law.

While typically admitting that increased criminal penalties won't solve the problem (e.g., after "enhancing" penalties for scrap metal theft to a felony, the number of thefts significantly increased), proponents inevitably insist that a new law must be passed in order to "send a message."

But recent social science research makes me wonder exactly what message this strategy actually sends? Social psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that such arguments often have the opposite effect of what's intended, because of the implicit message it sends, because even if such claims are:
both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.” Only by aligning descriptive norms (what people typically do) with injunctive norms (what people typically approve or disapprove) can one optimize the power of normative appeals. Communicators who fail to recognize the distinction between these two types of norms imperil their persuasive efforts.
In an NPR interview last year, Cialdini described an experiment in Arizona's Petrified Forest, which was experiencing a problem with visitors to the park stealing pieces of the petrified trees. They tested the effectiveness of two signs. The first declared, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” and was accompanied by pictures of three visitors taking wood. Alternatively along other trails they placed signs that read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

The result: The message implying many people stole resulted in more people stealing pieces of marked wood (a theft rate of 7.92% vs. 1.67%). That's a 374% difference! I can't think of a single penalty enhancement EVER passed by the Texas Legislature that reduced the targeted offense by that amount.

So let's translate this observation to the realm of criminal laws. E.g., graffiti is rampant so we must arrest more people and increase criminal penalties. By Cialdini's reasoning, such messages may actually promote graffiti instead of reducing it. Ditto for drug use, stealing scrap metal, or talking on the cell phone while driving. The messages used to build political support for higher punishments may actually increase the behaviors they want to prevent.

I've certainly been guilty of this. E.g., this blog has focused significantly on highlighting public corruption among Texas law enforcement. But what if that message - "corruption is widespread" - actually encourages more corruption instead of reduces it? It's a fascinating and complex question.

Similar experimental psych research appears to justify at least some version of the so-called "broken windows" theory, which holds that disorderly social environments themselves can boost crime. Dutch researchers tried an experiment in which they:
left an envelope hanging out of a postbox; the stamped and addressed envelope had a window through which could clearly be seen a five-euro note. How would passers-by, or those posting a letter, react when they saw it? The vast majority (87 per cent) either left it alone, or pushed it into the postbox. Only 13 per cent took it away (this was regarded as stealing).

But roughing up the environment had a dramatic effect. When the postbox was tagged with graffiti, 27 per cent of people stole the letter. When the postbox was surrounded by rubbish (but not graffitied), 25 per cent pocketed the cash.

So reducing the amount of rubbish and graffiti (i.e, cleanup) actually reduced resultant crime. But there's a hitch: Sending the message that lots of people are littering or doing graffiti also promotes more litter and graffiti. In that light, rapid cleanup reduces crime, while decrying graffiti or litter as a big problem requiring drastic solutions probably increases both unwanted behaviors and resultant negative consequences.

A lot of this research is quite recent, and the implications for crime and punishment messages haven't been fully explored. But it seems likely that the tactics commonly used to promote harsh punishments may promote the behaviors they hope to prevent.


Anonymous said...

One of the primary boosters to crime is the criminality of many of our elected officials. They are in your face with their criminal behavior. Being a politician equals lying, cheating, stealing, and murder for profit (Iraq War). Look at the current politicians who have been appointed to the new presidential cabinet. Some have over looked paying their taxes or forgotten to pay taxes for employees. Some got waivers to serve because they were not eligible by law. A waiver to violate a law is the poster child for situational ethics. I firmly believe the leaders of our government model the criminal mode of living as being alright and are one of the largest causes of criminal behavior. Our elected officials are leading by example!


Anonymous said...

I am not sure I follow this line of thinking. Let's take scrap metal as an example. Am I to believe that if they enhance the penalty for stealing scrap metal to a felony, it will in fact cause an increase in the stealing of metal? I have to call BS on that assumption.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's not an "assumption," 8:53. They enhanced the penalty for stealing scrap metal to a felony and it DID increase metal theft. You can debate why, but that was the empirical result.

However, that wasn't quite my point. What I'm saying is that the ARGUMENTS required to pass penalty enhancements promote crime; e.g., saying "drug use is widespread so penalties should be increased" promotes a message that, according to Cialdini's reasoning, could actually increase drug use. (It certainly hasn't stopped it.)

Depending on the circumstances, I think enhancements, once passed, may or may not influence crime rates (though empirically, mostly not). But the ARGUMENTS for ever greater enhancements promote trends that run counter to such gains, in many cases dwarfing them, would be my guess.

Is that any clearer?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

One more thing: This is particularly relevant when we're told the main reason for an enhancement is to "send a message." This research tells us the message sent could be counterproductive to the goal of reducing the unwanted behavior.

Anonymous said...

"That's not an "assumption," 8:53. They enhanced the penalty for stealing scrap metal to a felony and it DID increase metal theft."

Rising scrap metal prices increased scrap metal thefts, most notably copper.

Anyway, theft is theft. At one time, the penal code was condensed, I believe about 1974 or so, and as an example, different classifications of theft were condensed into one category with value levels defining penalty grades.

The lege over the years have reversed and undone what what had been undone. Why, because of all the different interest groups out there, cable tv, credit card companies, telecommunications, exotic livestock (big game ranch lobby), etc.

From a cops perspective, the penal code was a lot easier to interpret and apply back then before special interests groups made noise.

Anonymous said...

8:21 How about Daschles $120,000 "oversight?"

"I firmly believe the leaders of our government model the criminal mode of living as being alright and are one of the largest causes of criminal behavior. Our elected officials are leading by example!"

You are so right on man!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Rising scrap metal prices increased scrap metal thefts, most notably copper."

True enough, but apparently the enhancement to a felony had little impact. At a minimum, it was irrelevant. If Cialdini's right, it possibly sent a harmful message.

I totally agree with you about special interest enhancements. I just also wonder if they're unintentionally promoting counterproductive messages every time special interests push for some new, boutique felony.

Anonymous said...

"Sending a message" can be powerful and legislators know it. The problem with Texas is that the message being sent is still promoting a "Wild West" culture. You mentioned the effects of the enviornment - Neat vs trashy also having an impact upon crime.

Legislators should put more into real public improvements and a lot less into costly prisons!

sunray's wench said...

An enhanced penalty is fine, IF you can catch the person commiting the crime, AND prove they did it, AND have prison space for that person if that is part of the enhancement.

If any one of those pieces in the jigsaw is missing, the whole thing falls down. The politicians who are calling for enhancements obviously want to lock more people up, otherwise why have the enhancements at all? But they dont appear to have read any of the media coverage over the past 2 years, because if they had they would know that TDCJ is bursting at the seams with not enough guards to control the inmates already there.

If harsh penalties really stopped crime, TX would have the lowest crime rates (except perhaps California) in all America. You dont need to fund extra studies into it, it is right in front of everyone's eyes.

If you flip it on it's head, and go with the Politician's theory that they need to "send a message" to all the criminals in TX, doesnt that imply that Texas is not the kind of place that anyone would really want to live in? And yet, Texans are always very vocally proud of their state.

Is Texas full of violent people who would more likely steal your car than help you push it? Is it really so full of drug and alcohol fueled crime that no one is safe on the streets after dark? If the answer is yes, then the laws passed previously that were intended to enhance existing sentences and introduce new ones, are not working, so what makes anyone think that having more of the same will have a different effect?

rage said...

Come on now Grits, correlation does not equal causation, and you know it. Had metal theft gone down, you'd be the first to say that the enhancement wasn't necessarily the reason thefts went down.

All this proves is that the enhancement wasn't an effective deterrent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"All this proves is that the enhancement wasn't an effective deterrent."

That's what I said, Rage, when I wrote that "the enhancement to a felony had little impact. At a minimum, it was irrelevant."

I granted that WHY metal thefts went up is a debatable question, and that rising metal prices played a major role. What's not debatable, though, is that the enhancement failed to have the desired (or predicted) effect.

OliveRose said...

And to think that I thought Florida was the only state to come up with these brillant ideas.

rage said...

Seemed like you were attributing more causation.

But hey, I'm drinking at work this mid-morning and afternoon, so I may have read too much into it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage, I do think there is causality implied in the experiments described in the post, but I agree it'd overstate things to assume that's at play on Texas' scrap metal enhancement. Too many variables and alternate explanations.

We can say, I think, without fear of contradiction (by data, anyway) that the scrap metal enhancement did not reduce theft or increase public safety, but you're right we can't say it caused the crime increase.

Meanwhile, knock one back for me, will ya, since you're drinking at work today. I'm pretty busy today and remain annoyingly sober. ;)

RobertB said...

Sadly, my newly elected state representative from Mesquite has sponsored just such a bill, making it a felony to steal an air conditioner. I was looking for something to back up the letter I wanted to send, asking him to reconsider the policy. Thank you very much for giving me a clear, concrete reason why he should let his proposal quietly die.

Anonymous said...

Does it occur to anyone that once an offense is enhanced it hits law enforcement's radar screen and results in more arrests? The offense probably isn't happening more than it was before, it just becomes sexier to law enforcement...

x4livin said...

So we're back to the old clean slate theory showing environment is a main influence in behavior. Bradshaw's theory could be right, as opposed to jung, freud, and ericson and piaget....actually, I still like piaget's work, but even before Briggs did their personality test, it was no challenge to look down the street at the families and kids to see that envoronment raises a personality. The same is true in adulthood..environment makes the man. The prison man isn't the free man. So what now? Put all the inmates in a convent/monistary or out on a compund with a huge group of new-agers planting flowers? Maybe.

Anonymous said...

We are a society of excuses and this string of posts just reiterates my point. Who cares if they pass legislation that makes stealing an air conditioner a felony. If you don't steal air conditioners, you have nothing to worry about!!!

But I guess you guys are concerned about the potential increase in AC thefts based on the fact the penalty may be enhanced.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To 4:40 - You say "excuses," I'd say "reasons." Nobody's making excuses for thieves, but rather discussing the effectiveness of various public policy options for reducing theft. The experimental stats cited in the post, to me, are compelling. Do you have reason to dispute them?

According to the Dutch researchers cited, "People can actually be steered into criminal behaviour, such as stealing, simply by tinkering with their environment. In fact, the scientists claim, if you know what psychological buttons to press, you can make antisocial behaviour spread like a contagious disease."

If people can be "steered" into criminal behavior, understanding those dynamics, they can also be steered away from it.

The drug war, scrap metal penalties, etc., show that just jacking up penalties ad infinitum does not necessarily reduce criminality, so unless you're just willing say it's okay to tolerate current levels of crime, I see no problem with looking for other, more effective ways to reduce victimization.

Anonymous said...

Where is the personal accountability in all of this? People can be steered into stealing and other criminal behavior? I guess if I get behind the wheel of car drunk, I can blame those clever budweiser commercials for leading me astray. Life is all about choices. You make the wrong decision there is a consequence to pay.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's fine, 7:00, as long as you're willing to agree with this caveat: "I don't care if crime increases and more people are victimized. Personal accountability for offenders is all that matters, and lawbreaking should never engender any but a punitive response by government, even if it makes us less safe."

If that's what you believe, fine, your statements are consistent. If you would actually like to see crime and victimization decline, perhaps it would behoove you to consider a broader view.

Anonymous said...

I did a little reading on Robert Cialdini. You have over simplified his research.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Care to elaborate? There's not much on that page.

Certainly it's true I just focused on a subset of his research, what on that page is labeled "social proof."

It's also true I haven't read much of his stuff beyond what I've linked to. I'm blogging about ideas that are relatively new to me and exploring their implications. But if you want to quote from his research to contradict the implications I've taken from it, I'm interested to hear your take.

Anonymous said...

I am simply saying I could use his research to support my argument; however, I am coming from the authority aspect of his research whereas you are arguing social proof.

I agree 100% with the example given under social proof. I will be the first to admit that if I walk outside and everyone is looking up, I am going to look up also. Bit is a huge stretch to tie that example to criminal behavior.

Anonymous said...

"Does it occur to anyone that once an offense is enhanced it hits law enforcement's radar screen and results in more arrests?"

No it doesn't. It's already a crime so an arrest could be made anyway. What he apparently proposes to do is make all a/c thefts a felony.

There are already value levels that define penalty grades. Theft is theft and should be based on the value of the item(s) taken, not what was stolen.

Besides 3:30, I don't know of many a/c units sold today that you can buy under $1500, unless it's a cheap window unit.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that people commit crimes because they are people-because they put their own interests or egos above the interests, feelings or lives of others?
I have to say that people stole copper and scrap when the prices were high. When they went down, they stopped. I doubt many of them knew it was a felony offense. Could it be that their selfish needs were more important that concern over being caught? Does it matter. Just because they might not worry about it being a felony does that mean it doesn't need to be?
Isn't our society just a little screwed up? We shun accountability and we lower our expectations of others when we should perhaps raise them. Most of us lack the character of our ancestors. We are spoiled and do not exercise constraints over ourselves. We are very self centered. We ae just very confused and relucatant to stand up for much of anything.
We spew out statisitics regarding neuroscience-brains don't develop until age 17, no 25, no 50. We know neuroscience is difficult. The human brain is very complex and somethings we just don't know. Who knows-I learned at a conference that 14 and 15 yr. olds are perfectly capable of having mature, healthy sexual relationships but if they commit a crime they were too immature to be held much accountable. Yeh, we are screwed up.
We blame mental illness for crimes. Sometimes I'm sure that is true. If it is sometimes true, if I killed your 5 yr old do you want me out getting teatment with no real proven results. What if i'm on ritalin for ADHD? Isn't that a great reason why I behaved inappropriately. Keep me out.
There is no all or nothing in this business. Should we sometimes try 16 yr. olds as adults? Sometimes yes. It just depends. Crime rates are down which proves we need to let alot of people out. Excuse me, Tell me how the crime rates got down? Could it be because we did put more people in prison?
If we release all of these offenders back out into society how will we supervise them. Do we consider once a month reporting to some official, supervision when 99% of the rest of their time is unsupervised. What if they wear a leg monitor? Only good if you keep them on. Can you supervise someone 24/7. Wouldn't that be costly.
What is the cost of letting criminals back onto the streets verses the cost of keeping them in?
Why do we talk so much about the offender and not the victim? We have so much compassion for offenders. Aren't people who are repeatedly victimized by bully's that destroy their property, steal their belongings and assault them only to be let right back out imprisoned? That is a terrible prison from which there is no escape. How about good old family counseling and probation for the man who beat his 5 yr old. When do we send him away, after he kills. I find it alarming that so many murder victims are under the age of 5, and they died at the hand of another, not a gun. Why don't we consider these things?
Give me sme good solid evidence that showing the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs. It's not that I don't believe in them, I just know how statisitics are manipulated. What do we want in our society? I want to be safe. I don't think we need scores of new laws, I think we just need to be reasonable. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm 46 years old and am not a criminal yet. I worked with criminals everyday for 18 yrs. If they are more likely to get worse while incarcerated, why I am I not? When I see trash on the ground I am compelled to pick it up and throw it away. If I see a letter sticking out of a mailbox, I push it back in. The ones in my little town are crappy. There are alot of abandoned houses in my town, I am not a criminal yet. I volunteer to clean them up. I am not perfect, believe me. When I have screwed up it is because I was really just thinking about myself. I can say I was the adult child of an alcoholic, blah, blah,. or it's my ADD. But that is not a reason, it's an excuse. I went to the petrified forest and I love rocks so much I picked up a tiny chip, I admit it. I didn't pay attention to the signs, I wanted that rock. When I went to chaco canyon in New Mexico I saw all sign saying federal offense and and I saw none. I didn't think of any sign when I stepped over the barrier tape and picked up a tiny shard of ansasi pottery. I was wrong to do it, period. Folks human desires are strong, yet most ous manage to constrain ourselves most of the time. We must at least then look at trade offs. If I become weak and hurt somebody it is reasonable that I should expect to be punished, bottom line. I don't think w need excessive fines for all crimes, rather they should be sensible. No I can't buy the ehancement thing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:47 - I don't read the "authority" aspect as denoting "punishment." Quite the opposite. He's saying people tend to obey authority figures BECAUSE they're authority figures, not because of fear of reprisal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:07 asks: "Just because they might not worry about it being a felony does that mean it doesn't need to be?"

Absolutely, at least when the only reason offered for making it a felony was to "send a message" that supposedly would deter theft.

Otherwise, all the stuff about society shunning accountability, etc., IMO is BS. 3/4 of a million people are under supervision by the criminal justice system in Texas. We hold plenty of people personally accountable. In fact, it's ALL we know how to do to confront crime. But just because the only tool you own is a hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail. I'm suggesting those tactics might be usefully supplemented by research-based approaches. Is that so unreasonable?

Anonymous said...

"Absolutely, at least when the only reason offered for making it a felony was to "send a message" that supposedly would deter theft."

Who cares if it doesn't deter theft? Make it a felony for the simple reason you can impose a greater consequence.

I don't think the death penalty deters capital offenses; however, I still think the individual should be put to death if they commit a brutal murder.

Liberals speak from a position that everyone can be rehabilitated or everyone deep down wants to do right. That is complete nonsense. Some people steal simply because that don't want to pay for it. If that is the case, punish them!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Who cares if it doesn't deter theft?"

So now we don't care if public policy impacts crime? Terrific. Then what's the point of making it a felony? Just to create more prison guard jobs?

Nobody but you has mentioned the word "rehabilitation," so I'm not sure why you think that enters into this discussion. It seems like a red herring to me.

JTP said...

There is an old story that applies here. Some old guy and his wife were told by the fellow renting them some land that they had free run of the place, with the exception of some very special fruit trees he wanted left alone. He told the couple to use and consume whatever they liked, but keep their hands of his apple tree or they were "dead". Now thes two renters had never experienced dead before, so it didn't really register what the landlord was saying. But they knew one thing. This guys rule about the apple tree meant that it was really worth thinking about what made that tree so valuable, that the landlord would do this thing called death to you. Well, sure enough, the temptation was just too great, and they went and broke the law this guy laid down. And was there a penalty? Yes. Did subsequent generations stay away from their neighbors apple trees? Nope. Why? Well, only God knows, and he's still probably asking himself, what have I gone and created, a little monster?

Laws are made by politicians who believe that a particular group has an interest worth protecting and which has a broader social value. Unfortunately, politicians not only have to make decisions about which interests to protect, they also have to do so without pissing off enough of the electorate, causing them to lose an election. Tough on crime gets votes and it also gets campaigne contributions. There are very, very few criminals, who sit around and mull over the punishments in the penal code for various offenses. Half of them can't read, much less understand the code. They have a want for something, and for the most part, don't ever think about getting caught. Cops do love new laws. They often lobby for them (see DPS). They also will go looking for violators. Indeed, cops have had to become almost as crafty as their DA lawyer brethren in their understanding of enforcement and effective prosecution. Remember, cops and legislators are their own special interest groups. Cops have jobs mostly because of crime, not despite it. Legislators would not be around long if they didn't "generate" some kind of violation. It's somewhat self-serving. We have so many laws in Texas that even the most well intentioned, law biding person could be locked up in a matter of hours for unintentionally violating laws they did not even know existed. We need to get back to basics. One definition of theft. You took what didn't belong to you. One punishment, maybe one year for every $100 in value. Keep it simple stupid

Anonymous said...

We are no accountable for much anymore. When farmers and businesses get into financial troubles we bale them out. They are not held accountable for mismanagement and underhanded dealings, they get paid for it. If I order coffee and spill it on myself, I'm going to sue. It couldn't be my clumsiness. If I smoke and get cancer it's the tobacco co. fault. If I get fat it's Mcdonalds fault. Guns kill, not people using the gun. SUV's run over other cars, no the driver. If I murder my family and I'm 15 it's not my fault. I have unmet needs and I was on meds. Myy neighorhood makes me commit crimes. I am an alcoholic, I am a drug addict, I was abused, etc.... No, we accept little little.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:40 writes: "We are not accountable for much anymore."

With 2,324 separate felonies on the books and 3/4 of a million people under control of the Texas justice system - basically the highest incarceration rate on the planet - to me this is an asinine statement.

Perhaps what you mean is that the state has spent SO much energy trying to hold people accountable that the implicit messages, as described in the post, have counterproductively taught society the opposite lessons from the ones intended. If "accountable" means be punished by the state, that's being done en masse, to the point that the taxpayers can't afford it anymore. That's why we need to dig around in the toolbox some more and find another implement besides your hammer.

Anonymous said...

Do you sometimes get the feeling that the "tuff on crime" folks don't have much concern about the shameful fact that Texas has over three-quarters of a million people under supervision because they consider the persons under supervision to be some sort of manifestation of "those people?"

Anonymous said...

"after "enhancing" penalties for scrap metal theft to a felony, the number of thefts significantly increased"

yeah, 'cause the bounty hunters can set people up really easy on this one as they lurk outside of unemployment lines and bait unknowing dupes to help them load that extra scrap metal "just laying around" into the back of their car...

ah, the joys of the prison for profit system!

wornout said...

More people die at hospitals than on the highway. It must be safer to play in the highway. Your logic is astounding!