Sunday, December 27, 2009

Smart Answers to Recidivism

The New York Times editorial "Smart Answers to Recidivism" (December 24th, 2009) fails to consider the major repercussions of eliminating major post-sentence criminal punishments. The article suggests that making legitimate-sector job opportunities more available to ex-convicts will lower their recidivism rates. The article describes the changes to ex-convict employment that it supports:
No reasonable person would suggest that a sex offender be given a job in an elementary school or day-care center. An ex-offender could not be disqualified for employment unless the offense was directly related to the job. Job seekers would no longer be required to disclose convictions on applications for state, county or municipal jobs. The offenses could still be uncovered in background checks, but they would no longer automatically rule out an applicant from the start.
Of course, potential criminals likely are aware of these permanent costs of conviction--a difficult job search. Eliminating these costs would increase crime rates under a model of crime under which criminals weigh expected costs against benefits in deciding wether or not to commit crime. Perhaps better legitimate-sector opportunities lowers crime rates among past-criminals, but less punishment for crime increases crime rates overall. Thus, the question of whether or not such a change will lower total crime rates is empirical, and yet unanswered.


  1. I like the new shorter/simpler format! As for this one, I think it's worth noting that criminals and judges are likely to focus their decisions based mainly upon direct and obvious costs of punishment (i.e. fines, jailtime and probation/parole). It seems less likely (just my observation) that criminals in perpetrating and judges in sentencing crimes consider the more hidden costs of a conviction after the formal punishment has been served. Or at the very least, even if these costs are considered, they are much harder to measure accurately than the cost of the direct sentence. Therefore while I agree with your correction of the article's logic, I also think there’s probably something to be said for eliminating post-sentence barriers to job markets, welfare programs etc. I would say that wherever it is possible to make the costs of breaking the law more obvious and easy to measure, the system will gain in efficiency. Making these changes would make it easier for judges to make appropriate sentencing decisions. Also, potential criminals would have a more complete set of information whereupon to base their cost/benefit analysis (whereas before they may have thought the costs to be less than they actually turned out to be, leading to more crime).

  2. Thanks, Seth! We largely agree on the point that increasing the certainty around punishment for crimes would be optimal. However, if criminals are risk-averse, some uncertainty may be a cheap way for states to deter crime. In reality though, on the terms we're discussing, you're almost certainly right.