Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mainstream Criminology and Market Failures

I'm TA-ing for Intro to the American Criminal Justice System right now, and as much as it's an interesting class, the content is a bit different from how I would teach it. For in this class, the students are learning about two mainstream theories of crime -- Order Maintenance Policing (OMP) and Collective Efficacy.

Basically, OMP says that if you aggressively police small crimes like vandalism and loitering, it sends a message that crime is not welcome and will prevent bigger crimes from happening. Despite some very thorough and convincing research that this doesn't actually work, it sounds like it makes intuitive sense. On the other side of things, collective efficacy holds that the more social cohesion there is in the neighborhood, the less likely people are to commit crimes because they see that everyone is committed to a safe neighborhood and won't tolerate illegal activities.

Now, there are tons of problems with both of these theories (for instance, use either of them to explain Enron to me), but the biggest problem is that they both rest on a highly punitive theory that sees people as rationally calculating actors who will commit crimes if it's more profitable than legal activity and vice-versa. Therefore, we just need to raise the costs of doing crime (longer jail sentences, etc.) and people will stop committing criminal acts.

Of course, such a line of logic completely misses the fact that most property crimes are committed because the person in question has no other choice. It's not like they're weighing the options of a Harvard MBA versus mugging people. They're much more likely to be weighing starvation and homelessness against mugging people.

But an even bigger problem with such logic is that those who spout it know full damn well it doesn't work and are clearly only using it as a way to round up the poor and minorities, providing cheap prison labor, easy scapegoats, a roll-back of the civil rights movement, and a whole host of other disingenuous motives.

And how am I able to make such audacious claims about their motives? Because when the criminals are wealthy elites, suddenly the logic flies right out the window, as the above cartoon illustrates. For the poor we can't have rehabilitation instead of prison, as the conservatives argue, because it will make people dependent on the state and not punish them for their crimes. However, when you purposefully commit illegal acts and create a national financial crisis, you get $700 billion, which of course in no way encourages future criminal action. No, it sends the strong message that white collar crime will not be accepted.

So let that be a message to you, future CEOs of America: if you act criminally and fuck up the entire nation's financial system, we will harshly punish you by giving you hundreds of billions of dollars. So please, walk the straight and narrow.


travis linnnemann said...

Nice comments. What will happen to neighborhood disorder when thousands of "ARM" loans foreclose? Is this a crisis of unintended consequences or wholesale gentrification. How long before these liquidated mortgages go to domestic and international corporations for pennies on the dollar?

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Of course, such a line of logic completely misses the fact that most property crimes are committed because the person in question has no other choice."

Its interesting, but I don't think research says that is entirely true. Rather a body of research suggests that a good amount of property crime is committed by kids from the middle and upper classes.

Hope all is well -- PSU punk

Woz said...

PSU punk -- you're right in that I shouldn't have said "most." In the context of the course I was discussing, we're focusing entirely on inner-city criminality. So in that limited context, I would argue that most crime of monetary gain are motivated by a desperation for subsistence, or at least more that than a rational calculation of various alternatives.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense.... while support for most deprivation models also seems mixed, I share your skepticism of viewing most criminal behavior as rational and calculating. Talk to you soon.