Friday, June 29, 2018

Should the government give high-risk offenders gaming systems to reduce crime?

Regular readers will recall that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to the school shooting in Santa Fe by suggesting that Texas eliminate subsidies aimed at luring video game companies to the state. Grits responded by disputing the purported link between video-game violence and violent crime.

The more I think about it, though, I wonder if video games might be part of a solution to violent crime?

Here's an outside-the-box (but not the Xbox) suggestion for reducing crime that's cheaper than incarceration and gives authorities a better tool to help offenders comply with probation: Give young people at high risk of committing serious crimes gaming systems as part of probation terms and make taking them away a punishment for violating conditions.

Several different strands of thought led me to this idea, which I've not seen proposed elsewhere.

In recent years, we've seen pilot programs where law enforcement identified the people at the highest risk of committing violent crime and simply paid them not to. And it seems to work! Some of the methods for identifying the most high-risk folk can be pretty sophisticated.

At the same time, we've seen studies showing that youth playing violent video games (or really, any video games) tend to commit less crime because of the voluntary incapacitation effect: The kid playing Grand Theft Auto for hours doesn't have time to be out stealing my car.

(On Twitter, John Pfaff recently pointed to a paper showing a similar voluntary incapacitation effect related to violent movies.)

My personal belief is that the rise of video games and online entertainment caused a much greater proportion of the crime decline witnessed in the past quarter century than most observers have considered.

Young males through about their mid-to-late twenties are the highest risk population group for committing crime. This is also the group with whom video games are most popular.

So what if we combined these observations to create a correctional strategy? What if high-risk young male offenders on probation were given a PlayStation or Xbox and a few popular games when they went on supervision, and allowed to keep the equipment if they successfully completed their probation term?

I see several benefits:

1) The incapacitation effect: The more time these youth spend playing video games, the less likelihood they'll get into trouble.

2) Incentive for good behavior: Just like payment is a positive incentive not to commit crime in the pilot programs described above, access to a video game station is a significant incentive not break the law or violate probation rules, as well as to complete probation.

3) Tool to address rules violations: Similarly, taking access to the video game system away is a significant additional negative incentive, a tool that could be used to punish technical non-compliance (half of all revocations to prison from probation in Texas are for technical violations).

4) Economics: Gaming systems are cheaper than paying a monthly stipend, as in the above-cited examples, and the project could be scaled up more easily.

The complaint would come from people who say, "My kids don't have a Playstation, why should the government buy one for criminals?" But since the answer is so firmly rooted in public-safety goals - particularly if the tactic were reserved for the most serious, high-risk probationers - IMO it could be justified. We spend a lot of money already on these high-risk populations.

The same parental controls that keep young kids from accessing inappropriate stuff could be used to limit improper use of the system (contacting victims, etc.), and of course improper use could be punished by taking it away.

IMO this could reduce crime among the population eligible for the program and make it easier to get people to comply with their probation terms. The cost of each system is significant (~$300 + games), but a lot less than incarceration, and I bet under such circumstances the state could get a bulk-purchase discount.

This is a brainstorming post, not a fully formed policy suggestion. But as cost-effective public safety solutions go, this idea seems to check a lot of the boxes.


He's Innocent said...

Grits, so glad you wrote this. I'd thought of something similar recently but thought I might be crazy. The rise of gaming platforms coincides fairly close to the decline in crime! Personally, I would not be thrilled with giving them game stations for the very reason you cited - "mine does not have one!". But my rational side then takes over and reminds me of the potential payoff. I am all for consideration of any policy that takes bored young males off the streets despite my initial over-reactions. Hey, maybe as a bonus, we could require they play "educational" games in addition to GTA!

Clearly what we've been doing for decades has not worked to reduce incarceration. I say let's try anything that makes any sort of sense.

Anonymous said...

And hey, when they get bored playing video games, maybe the taxpayers can pay for them to have an all inclusive trip to a resort in Cozumel, and maybe buy them some hookers too! Who said crime doesn't have to pay!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You're right, 4:24, why spend $300 on a video console when we can spend $20k-plus to lock them up instead? That makes so much more sense for taxpayers, they should definitely prefer that!

And you've got me: A $300 gaming console is just a first step toward paying for vacations and hookers. The fact that it would save taxpayers money and prevent future victimization is just a smokescreen for wanting to hook criminals up with goodies. Amazing how you've seen right through me.

Anonymous said...

This is not a new idea, Grits. The Sicilian Mafia has been doing this for years.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps redirect (legitimate) assets forfeiture funds (in part) to this or similar programs. A side benefit would be the inclusion of the at risk kid's peers in the program through association. We've had foster kids who were behavior problems (they were on the spectrum) whose problem levels were greatly reduced if not eliminated through the availability of games.

Anonymous said...

"Young males through about their mid-to-late twenties are the highest risk population group for committing crime..."

Isn't that a stereotype? Instead of saying "committing crime' shouldn't we say suspected of committing a crime?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just saw the 7/3 11:26 comment and no, it's not a stereotype. Crimes exist, and young men are who commit most of them.