Evidence matters


In his YouTube interview last night, the Prime Minister cited “evidence” in explaining his government’s crime policy. Dan Gardner congratulates Mr. Harper, then mocks.

Harper is right that certainty, not severity, deters crime. But that “certainty” is not the “certainty” of getting prison time when you stand in front of a judge to hear your sentence. It’s the certainty of getting caught. Sentencing? Is Harper serious? At the time someone is contemplating a crime, sentencing is a vague notion far away in a distant future that the would-be criminal seldom considers because — please note — would-be criminals tend to be impulsive people who do not consider the future consequences of their actions… even if they know what the sentence for a crime is, which they probably don’t because would-be criminals also tend to be badly educated and poorly informed.

Oddly enough, Mr. Harper’s Justice Department has so far been unable to provide any evidence that suggests mandatory minimums deter crime (or, for that matter, that the sentences it is legislating differ from the sentences that are already being enforced).


Evidence matters

  1. Wow. Boneheaded, even for harper.

  2. I guess then if mandatory minimums do not deter criminals would it also be safe to say that the prospect of jail or any other punishment will not deter them as well. So we might as well empty the jails and just let them roam free since it is proven that incarceration will not stop crime.

    • He said the certainty of jail time reduces crime because most criminals are impulsive and don't appreciate the consequence (don't really think about it and/or don't know what the consequence is), with the deterrent being certainty of prison time, not the amount of prison time involved.

      I think. He also said it much clearer…

  3. Come on…

    Criminals doing jail time are not committing crimes in the streets. What other evidence would you need? (A recent decline in Calgary's gangster "hits" is a clear example).

    • When discussing sentencing policy, that isn't part of the deterrence argument. That is part of the "protection of the public argument." It's not that it's irrelevant, it's just that it's a separate factor in a multi-faceted argument.

  4. If all criminals were first-time offenders Gardner might have a point. As it is, however, criminals who've already been caught and released are pretty familiar with the process, are aware that they're not going to suffer very much for their crime, and are back out on the street where they have the opportunity to commit it.

    I'd expect this to occur to most people after approximately 1.5 milliseconds of thought. Not Gardner, apparently.

    • Would stiffer sentencing for second-time offenders (California three strikes?) be a fair compromise?

  5. We don't need any evidence. After all, reality has a well-known liberal bias.

    • Of course, but only in the mind of a liberal.

  6. Why do we ever release them? This is not an argument.

  7. I think the suggestion is that we increase probability of apprehension, not eliminate incarceration. If a would-be criminal thinks they have a decent chance of getting away with a crime (because, say, they know they have a provincial warrant and they can just bounce for Vancouver or Halifax with impunity) then they are less likely to be deterred. Whether they think they might get 5 years rather than 3 years in the event they get caught is not a very good deterrent.

    Now, I don't think you're going to see much advocacy for leniency for people who are demonstrably likely to reoffend, particularly violent crimes.

  8. They don't suffer enough? If the goal is suffering, then we shouldn't waste time keeping them in a cell. Why not take a few cues from the Afghan National Police and employ some strategically deployed braided cables, car batteries, sleep deprivation, etc.?

  9. Actually, that did occur to me after approximately 1.5 milliseconds of thought, but that was about 11 years ago, when I started studying crime and justice. Between then and now, I've done a lot of research on the subject — I've even quizzed tough dudes in supermaxes, my friend — and my views are based on that work. What is the basis for yours?

  10. Did you not read it or not understand it?

  11. So do you have a solution to criminal behaviour? Or do we just throw up our hands and let them run amok.

    • uhm, that may be your problem D. there probably is no single, silver bullet solution to difficult policy issues like criminal behaviour. attempting to impose them (e.g., mandatory minimums) is a recipe for disaster (e.g., see US prison system and its implications).

  12. There's no evidence we can deter people from doing anything. It would be more honest to simply look at longer sentences as punishment. It has been said before that the only real chance that deterrence may work is if you applied the principle to white collar criminals/ basically the elite of our society – those who have a lot to lose. If there was a death penalty for white collar crime it would end almost overnight. The death penalty in the US has had almost no deterrent effect – because most of the indviduals it has been used against either didn't give a damn, or commit unpremeditated crimes in the heat of passion.

  13. No. Nor is it the belief of anyone I have ever met, aside from occasional straw man.

  14. As pointed out above, it's not the nature of the punishment that deters a person from committing a crime as much as it is the probability of getting caught.

    I don't want to punish people who are committing a crime, I don't want them to commit the crime in the first place. The simple truth is, nobody who commits a crime does so thinking "Ah, I'll get caught but only do three months." What they're thinking is, "I know how to make sure I don't get caught.."

    Mandatory minimums are ridiculous because they take away from the judge the power to set a lower sentence where it may be entirely appropriate. They take away the power from the legal system to plea bargain.. whether that's simply to expidiate the process in order to have more time to try the really serious stuff, or whether it's to get an advantage on an even bigger threat to society.

    • "The simple truth is, nobody who commits a crime does so thinking "Ah, I'll get caught but only do three months." What they're thinking is, "I know how to make sure I don't get caught.."

      Please then explain why they would be worried about getting caught? I mean if there is no certainty that they might be incarcerated, why would they worry about getting caught if the change is, say 50-50, or less?

      You see, part of the reason the criminal is worried about getting caught is that he will have to face the consequences of his or her actions. And if those consequences are to be certain, then the idea of being caught and facing the consequences might weigh much heavier on the mind when contemplating to do the crime in any event.

      • They probably don't know what the consequences for getting caught are, because, if we're honest, we realize that most criminals who are caught are either dumb, lazy, impatient, or any combination of the three. After all, if they weren't, they'd be aware of better ways to meet their goals that involve a helluva lot less risk.

        Given that, do you honestly think they go about researching what the sentencing rates are for various crimes? Hell, you're an intelligent fellow, without looking it up now, can you tell me what sort of crimes you can commit, get caught, and have only a 50-50 chance or less of being incarcerated, if there's any chance of being incarcerated at all?

        And of course this completely ignores the other portion of it.. that the mandatory minimums proposed aren't harsher than the typical sentence anyway.

        YYZ points it out quite simply. Houston, which has the death penalty as a possible punishment, and is much less tolerant of crime in general, has a higher murder rate than Toronto. Three strikes laws, where implemented, generally result in insignificant changes to recidivism. In California, crime rate has actually gone up since the implementation of three-strikes.

        In short, harshness and certainty don't matter, because criminals are dumb, and don't know what the odds are anyway.

        • Please then explain why they would be worried about getting caught? What exactly is the worry?

          • Because even if they don't know what the particulars are, it's pretty much general knowledge that getting caught is going to suck in some fashion or another. At the very least, it generally means you don't get whatever benefit you committed the crime for.

          • Going to get caught sucks. That much they do know. You are right that in some cases the benefit of the crime will be wiped out, but always? I meand, if someone murders, the murder victim will not be returned to life, and if I heard the PM correctly, he was talking about minimum sentences for the worst offenses, in fact I remember him talking about murder and very violent crimes.

            You know, when extreme violence has been committed, those wounds can not be returned either. The benefit returned benefit theory doesn't cover my question completely.

  15. I am of course not serious about the WC death penalty…although it is an intruguing thought.

  16. Don't tempt me…

  17. You may want to read the comment to which I was replying, in which Andrew suggested that the goal of sentencing does not include "suffering".

  18. I think i have to agree with Fred [ for the first time ]. The only aspect of con tough on crime that makes sense to me is if you're inside you can't be outside reoffending. Of course that's no arguement for not rehabitulating criminals, which many cons seem to think is a waste of time. I think you [and Gardner] have a good point about deterrence linked to the likelihood of detection though.

  19. I beg to differ. People implicitly calculate "risk", which is the perceived probability of getting caught multiplied with the severity of the sentence. If the punishment for speeding is a lifetime in prison, almost no one would do it even though the odds of getting caught are slim. Likewise, someone is less likely to commit a crime for small payoff when the punishment is large than when it is small, even if they think they are unlikely to get caught.

    I'm undecided on mandatory minima – I also am inclined to leave these decisions up to the judges. However, if the judges are making a mockery of the system, then desperate times call for desperate measures.

    • Yours is a commonsense kind of argument but it's been shown to be wrong time and time again. It's just one of those times that our instinctive guess tends to clash with reality. Mr. Gardner is pretty much bang on.

  20. "Well ok, not supermaxes: youth prisons,"

    In what capacity?

  21. Except that there's no evidence whatsoever that they are. In fact, from earlier reports on Macleans, the mandatory minimums are typically less than what judges will hand down, except in such cases where plea bargains have taken place.

    • Yes, but no. Mandatory minimums are just so that everyone convicted of that particular crime gets at least that much time. It says nothing about maximums or usuals.

      I'm sure we all have our pet cases where a person is charged and convicted of a particular crime and gets community service, time served, or house arrest. For me, those pet cases are sexual assault of a minor while in a position of trust. And they get house arrest? Required to plant a few bushes? Err, no, I want to see some jail time.

      Of course, the Conservatives don't seem concerned about that particular crime, so this entire law-and-order thing is bogus as far as I'm concerned.

  22. My goodness. An Internet comment thread in which people took progressively more extreme views until they ended up saying silly things they would regret in the cool light of morning. Don't that beat all!

  23. Um, no, people don't calculate risk, implicitly or explicitly. That's econo-nonsense. Say, didn't someone write a book about that? Fellow by the name of Gardner. (I'd provide the Amazon link but I retain some shred of decency.)

  24. True 'nuff. Which is why we have this high-tech system whereby a reply can be directed solely at a previous silly comment, rather than at the entire thread. In this way it constitutes a legitimate reply to silliness rather than a "straw man" intended to obfuscate.

  25. Young offenders, eh? You mean like these jail-house lawyers? http://law.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?articl

    See, there is proper research on the subject. And it doesn't offer much support for the notion that the typical criminal is a wily Moriarty who knows just how to work the system.

    • why do hate our troops with your proper-research-elite-experts-mumbo-jumbo-fancy-reports?

  26. [ "for the first time" ]? I guess we're batting 1000, then, since I don't recall posting here before.

    I'm all for rehabilitation. I just happen to believe the a government's mandate to protect it's citizens' safety and property rights trumps its responsibility to socialize those who chose a criminal path.

    My family and property are protected from the incarcerated.

    • Sorry, wrong Fred. I'm nor sure if anyone needs to trump anyone here, but i agree, the gov't has a duty to protect its citizens.

  27. The previous comment wasn't there when I read yours. Scout's honour. But if your previous comment was directed as described, I withdraw my scurrilous accusation of strawmannery.

  28. He also said "If the goal is suffering…" then XYZ, where XYZ is some crazy conclusion that follows from the insane theory that the goal of punishment includes "suffering". Sort of a reduction ad absurdum, see. If we keep going we're going to hit the entire roster of dialectical buzzwords here.

  29. I see. That's why raising the penalty for drunk driving, for example, has absolutely no effect on drunk driving rates. It's just done for kicks and all.

    • Do you have some evidence it does?

      What has the death penalty done for the murder rate in the US?

    • Hard to say how much is agressive public camaigning/public stigma , how much stiffer sentencing. Perhaps analogous to smoking campaigns. Effective anti-smoking campaign or putting the price of smokes through the roof – bit of both maybe? Course i don't have any data…just an opinion Mr G..

    • I agree with you (twice today – odd) – stiffer punishments must at least be a factor for some crimes – but not for every person in every case. One of the reasons I speed is because I can afford the ticket. If they locked me up for speeding or charged me a few thousand, I wouldn't.

      But clearly people who commit murders understand the punishment. Murder rates are much higher in say, Houston, than in Toronto…even though the punishments are more severe in Houston. Under that scenario, other factors clearly weigh more heavily than severity of sentence in predicting the murder rate.

  30. I'm already feeling silly about it and would have preferred a nap or other non sequitur.

  31. From that selfsame report, page 40:

    "These results are consistent with those of a recent Canadian study (Peterson-Badali,Ruck,& Koegl, 2001) finding that many juvenile offenders did not think that they would receive a serious punishment if apprehended … the juveniles' previous experiences in the juvenile justice system may have communicated the wrong message that the consequences of committing crimes as a juvenile were insignificant. “You talk to youngsters…and they tell you, repeatedly, that they got away with so much—that they commit crimes, but aren't arrested, and if they are arrested, when they are brought into [juvenile] court, nothing happens” (Michaelis, 2001, p. 309, quoting Los Angeles Assistant District Attorney).

    Clearly, the relatively mild sanctions the juveniles in our study had received from the juvenile court had not
    served as a deterrent, but rather as slaps on the wrist. Kleiman (1999) argues that the juvenile justice system
    often fails to provide meaningful sanctions until it is too late.
    – emphasis mine

    So again, if someone commits a crime and receives a "slap on the wrist", they tend to be undeterred from offending again. This makes sentencing important for reducing repeat offences. Do you have an answer to this argument?

    • I am at a loss to understand your logic.

      The reason deterrence does not work is because young people, in particular, are not aware of the laws, and they do not know what kind of sentence they could get. They are not thinking about the potential sentence when they are deterred from committing a crime, they are thinking about getting caught.

      Your "research" relies on kids saying "I would not have done it if I knew", instead of looking at kids (and adults) who keep doing it notwithstanding the consequence. Anyone would tell you they would not reoffend if they were aware they would be punished with a transfer to adult. It is what they do when they get out and reoffend that tells the tale, not some interview while they are sitting in jail.

      By the way, there is tons of evidence in Canada that youth are not deterred by potential sentences. Have you heard of Anthony Doob?

  32. No, in the mind of a realist.

  33. Fair enough. Something does seem to be scrambled about the comments today. I notice one of mine is listed as "deleted by the user" even though I don't remember deleting it.

  34. Just don't lie down on a false dye cot o' me.

  35. The purpose of mandatory minimums is punishment, not deterrence.

    Should people be punished for their crimes or not?

    • Personally, I have no desire to punish.
      I have a desire to prevent. Prevent in the first place, and prevent recurrence.
      I have a desire to maintain order and safety of society.

      But punishment for punishment's sake is a waste of society's time and energy.

  36. Actually I think it's both, along with isolating criminal from society and rehabilitation.

    • How's that working out in the USA? Oh right, it's not.

  37. "…young people, in particular, are not aware of the laws, and they do not know what kind of sentence they could get. "

    For first-timers, true. But for repeat offenders, as the block text above points out, they have seen exactly what kind of sentence they got and they know it was not big deal. Hence they are undeterred.

    None of this has anything to do with being transferred to adult. Evidence suggests that that does not work very well, but for unrelated reasons.

    • You are so wrong.

      As Pat said, there is a lot of research on how deterrence works, or rather, doesn't work, with youth.

      Kids think any time in jail is too long. Ask any kid who is in jail – any kid at all – if he or she wants to be there, and they will say no. It is not like they are committing crime because they make money from it (very few of them do), so what is the value in losing several months or years of their lives?

      Remember that to a 14 year old, 6 months is a very long time to spend in jail.

      By the way, your link refers to kids being transferred to adult.

      • I certainly hope Gaunillon is no longer working or volunteering with children in our prison system.

      • The link (which is not mine) is about transfer to adult, and pointing out how unsuccessful that often is. The text I highlighted on page 40 is about how light the sentences in juvenile are, and consequently how little they do to deter kids from further crime. Read it.

        • And in case you fail to understand, the fact the sentences were relatively "light", does not necessarily mean that is the reason they do not deter crime.

          Adult penalties are harsh, and they don't deter crime. Just ask all those murder victims in Texas…

        • Wow. I see you responded to the most relevant part of my comment and simply ignored all that irrelevant stuff about how your thesis was hogwash.


  38. Is it your belief that we can deter people from committing crimes without imposing any unpleasant consequences (read: "suffering") on them?

    • If the goal of incarceration is solely suffering, why not dispense with the length of incarceration as the punishment (this is very expensive). Why don't we mete out punishments in loss of limbs? Or psychological torture? I'm sure a skilled 'interrogator' could induce more suffering in a month than the typical 25 year term some offenders are sentenced to.

      I look at prison as a serving two primary roles:

      (i) protecting society from those likely to commit crimes
      (ii) reduce the likelihood of recidivism

      Not the lack of suffering. I'm not saying it should be a Mexican resort. I'm just being honest here: if the goal is to cause suffering I don't see why the suffering should be done through length of incarceration rather than other, far more effective means inflicting suffering.

  39. Oddly enough, quizzing tough dudes in supermaxes. Well ok, not supermaxes: youth prisons.

    So if it occurred to you, how do you answer the answer the argument. A repeat offender knows the deal, has seen that there is not much in the way of punishment for his previous crime, and is out on the street to recommit. I'm failing to see how this doesn't render your mockery in the article somewhat inane.

    • But Gaunilon, how does a mandatory minimum change for a repeat offender? Obviously, I would hope a repeat offender wouldn't get a minimum sentence, but my hoping doesn't always seem to have the effect I'd like it to.

      I simply mean to say that stiffening sentences for repeat offenders by legislating a mandatory minimum to all persons charged with that crime is rather missing the point, don't you think?

      • I've never said I supported mandatory minima.

  40. He said 'suffered enough' which implies suffering. You straw manned his slippery slope…

    Gardner prevented you from being Godwin Lawed.

  41. That would be the same kind of 'certainty' that all those snowmobile daredevils had that they would not get caught in an avalanche caused by their activities this past weekend no doubt.

  42. Yes, that would be awful wouldn't it? Particularly since I've never had anything to do with our prison system, as a worker, volunteer, or inmate. Jumping to conclusions, even when it's just to get a mild insult in, is not a good idea.

  43. I think that was unfair, Mike T.

    • There would be serious issues attached to trying to connect with a child going through the harrowing youth criminal justice system all the while thinking they aren't being punished enough. Although apparently his involvement was in some other mysterious capacity.

      • Neither of us knew this other mysterious capacity at the time we wrote what we wrote, but I was thinking his conclusion (they aren't being punished enough) may have come as a result of trying to connect with a child going through the harrowing youth criminal justice system. Which is why I found your comment unfair. He would have a basis for his opinion, I mean, whether you or I would have come to the same conclusion under the same circumstances or not.

  44. Oh, I thought your reply was specific to that post. It was so far up the thread though, that I can't even be bothered myself to go look again. I apologize if I was wrong, though.

  45. No, I think there's something to be said for stiffer penalties, but in general I think all decisions should be made by the lowest possible authority – government is a one-size-fits-all, sledgehammer-to-kill-an-ant sort of solution to most problems. That's what makes me a small-c conservative.

    The judge at the trial is the authority closest to the situation, and therefore best equipped to decide an appropriate penalty. The only argument I can see for mandatory minima is if the judiciary is severely compromised.

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