Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Gambler's Crime

There was an article in the Express yesterday talking about how absurd it is that criminals are receiving up to 10 suspended sentences before they are finally locked up. Yes, well, most of us know that you have to be a hardened career criminal to go to prison for any length of time these days.

The article writer asks what kind of message this sends out, if a potential offender is almost certain that he or she will not end up behind bars, there isn't much of an initial deterrent to stop them from going into crime. The key word here is 'incentives', and economics is very interested in the word. 

I remember as a child being told a neat piece of wisdom on incentives. How do you ensure that two brothers have an equal piece of a chocolate bar given to them by their mother? Get one brother to break it and then allow the second one to choose which piece he wants. That’s a sure fire way to encourage the first brother to break it as evenly as he can. The incentive is that he has self-interest in the equitable division of the chocolate bar. 

Incentives have the strongest influence when there is a tangible focal point. So, for example, in a national lottery, people will be more attracted to buying a ticket with one very sizeable jackpot (say £1 million) than with 10 smaller jackpots (say 10 x £100,000). Lottery gamblers prefer a reduced chance of a huge win over an increased chance of a less-huge win. 

The enquiring article writer would be pleased to know that this kind of psychology applies in ethics and jurisprudence too. Criminals generally prefer a reduced chance of a lengthy sentence over an increased chance of a shorter sentence.

So if you want the optimal deterrence for criminals it is better to focus on improving the rate of successful convictions more than increasing the jail sentences (although the latter may be prudent too if incarceration were to provide stronger steps towards rehabilitation and the bringing about of greater human worth, purpose and self-esteem).

Consequently, then, psychology says that a system in which an offender receives several suspended sentences before they are finally locked up would be improved greatly if there was an increased chance of being convicted and an increased chance of a prison sentence with unfavourable conditions.

It is clearly a problem that, for many, prison isn't much of a worse lifestyle than being free, particularly when offenders' feelings of self-worth make them fairly indifferent to either scenario. Therefore, I'd suggest a good balance would be to increase the chance of an offender being convicted, increase the chance of a prison sentence with not-too-comfy conditions, and ensure that rehabilitation transforms offenders' lives in a way that makes them positively not want to come back to prison.