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Archive for March, 2011


In Defense of Bargaining

At one point I did write a post against plea bargaining because of the pressure it can place on innocent individuals. However, I feel the need to jump into this new conversation about the process. The truth of the matter is, in some crimes, there is no way the judicial system can benefit the victim. Fines go to the state, and then the perpetrator of the crime can be put in jail where we won’t be contributing much, if anything, to society. Sure, the victim can receive some closure, but any monetary damages would be gained through a civil suit. Plea bargaining in itself can provide some economic benefit. The defendant doesn’t spend as much time removed from society, and the prosecutor can devote his time and resources to other or more important cases. Sergeant Huish, of the USU Police Department, once told my class that many victims will accept a plea bargain as a form of closure because at least then the defendant is convicted and punished, even if it isn’t to the original charges. The defendant doesn’t risk harsh punishment, and the prosecution doesn’t risk losing the trial.

The cost of Execution

This chapter at one point talks about the cost of executing a prisoner. Currently it is a very expensive to execute someone. With the cost of time and court cost, along with the cost of losing a member of society that could have created some production, it makes me wonder if this is an efficient outcome. I’m not for or against the death penalty; I just want to look at this from a strict efficiency perspective. I would argue that it is in efficient. My basic thinking is that I value my life more than any monetary value imaginable. I would choose to be imprisoned for life, over losing my life. And if you think about it, you aren’t paying for the time and court fees of fighting to not lose your life. You will be able also produce while imprisoned. Not at the level that you would be producing at if you weren’t imprisoned, but still hopefully enough to negate the cost you are imposing to society. And if you’re not doing that, what is an efficient outcome? This is where I run into a problem. Once you put someone into a situation where they can’t produce and there is a cost of keeping them there, you will fail to reach an efficient outcome. I can really only see an efficient outcome if I apply pigouvian thinking to it. Compensation for a cost imposed, compensation could be a fine if the guilty party can pay it, or payment with time of service.

Airport Security and Liberty.

Friedman says the following about deterring crime: “The correct rule in the more general case is to prevent an offense if and only if the net cost from the offense occurring is greater than the cost of preventing it” (226).  This seems to be the economic underpinnings for Benjamin Franklin’s words: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

If I remember right, I saw those words of Franklin written on a brochure in Old Main about airport security.  Some of you have probably seen it.  Or maybe one of you put it there, I don’t know.  The premise was that we are sacrificing our liberties, in this case privacy, I guess, for security.  People are essentially being molested by security guards and/or ‘undressed’ in the images on security monitors in an effort to prevent terrorists from hijacking planes.  The question then, is whether the cost of preventing such terrorism is greater than the net cost from the terrorism itself.  And it’s a can of worms that obviously elicits pretty heated expression of opinions.

One problem is that we can’t inflict these ex post punishments on terrorists who hijack planes because they are dead.  This is why we preemptive security is necessary.

Religion and Criminal Law

Friedman’s chapter on criminal law gave me a whole lot to think about.  The complexity of the situation and the incentive structures made it very difficult to construct a model that explained the tradeoffs.  In my other classes we have been working with general equilibrium models which allow us to converge on a given set of parameters that maximize a certain variable, usually utility.  I tried to quickly formulate equations that describe the behavior that Friedman was explaining and soon determined that my model lacked a lot in describing the tradeoffs from the different actions and punishments.

One of the things that Friedman described was the importance of determining the costs and benefits given to not only the victims but also to the criminals.  I think that this is a rational theory, but that it is lacking (as I feel most models are that try and explain human behavior).  The missing factor that I thought was important was the effects that the religious and moral views of government officials affect the outcomes of these analyses.

For example, the costs/benefits that a certain society receives from someone committing a murder could be evaluated by the loss of utility of the person murdered and the effects on the victim’s family and friends.  In addition the satisfaction of the murderer along with the monetary cost to society could be plugged into the analysis.  However, a religious judge could also factor in a belief the murders go to be punished in hell for a 1,000 years following this life.  This belief could have two very distinct effects.  One, the judge could try and apply the maximum punishment possible to deter future murders or he could lessen the given punishment because of a belief in a punishment following this life.  Usually this angle is avoided because of a belief in separation of church and state, but nonetheless, religious beliefs do pay a huge role in the cost/benefit analysis of an individual.

Unfortunately, we all can’t all determine the relationships between the costs and benefits of criminal activities or adequately judge the behavior of irrational and even rational criminals. If we could understand the workings behind these things we might be able to apply the complex reasoning that Friedman suggests.

“Your Reputation Precedes You”

Chapter 15 of Friedman’s book has left me completely speech less.  Not because I was so moved by what was said, rather I just didn’t understand a single thing he said.  His Economic theories are far to involved for me to understand and even reading it several times does not help answer any questions.  The one thing I was able to understand was the idea that stigma is in fact the most efficient punishment there is.  The loss of ones reputation is a way to continue to punish the offender for his or her’s offence.  My question is, does the judge consider this in their verdict and sentencing?  If that were the case than I would assume that fines would be much lower.  Loosing your reputation is a big deal.  Even for things that aren’t criminally punished I would argue that the loss of reputation is the only thing preventing the crime.  Why should i work hard at a low paying, minimum wage job?  I can just go find another one and make the same amount.  The only reason is that my new employers want to know how good of a worker I am and so they ASK my former ones and inquire into my reputation.  Sooner or later it is going to come out that I am a slacker and a dead beat who they should not hire.

“Your reputation precedes you” is a something we hear often and it is that reputation that serves as one of the best ways to prevent and enforce crimes.  It is efficient as, Friedman points out, and it is one punishment that does not need a legal of cops and prisons to enforce.

The Unguided Criminal

Wouldn’t it be good economics to reward good behavior, as well as punishing bad behavior? It seems there are far too many penalties in law, and relatively no rewards.  The incentives we have created in our criminal law systems are hopefully getting more efficient, but we are trying to look forward to prevent crimes and not back at what has happened.  Friedman gives two statements on 235 that sum up our current system.  1. “My own suspicion is that if we cannot teach people to be virtuous with twelve years of public schooling, a few more years of imprisonment is unlikely to do the job.” 2. “increasing expected punishment reduces crime rates.”  I find both statements to be true, but perhaps guiding the rabbit to it’s cage with a carrot would be more effective than using a series of scare tactics to get it there whenever it is about to make a wrong turn.

Isn’t there something we can do to promote good behavior?  I believe that punishment will always be necessary.  Some people are just bad to the bone, and you can’t turn them good with anything you can offer them.  But, I also believe we could do a lot better at promoting good alternatives to crime.  Alternatives that would be a great cost to give up if you wanted to commit one. We could offer tax breaks to people who have committed no crimes by a certain number of years, and up the break when they reach milestone years with no offenses.  People who volunteer could receive garbage pick-up, or sewer service for free.  Children who do not get in trouble in school receive gifts according to behavior at the end of the year instead of a citizenship grade that no one cares about.  Cracking the whip promotes power trips and rebellion.  Rewards promote cooperation and positive incentives.

 I agree with chels20 blog about plea-bargaining, how is that beneficial to the victim at all?  Yeah it’s a good thing for the offender because is sentence is not as bad, but for the victim there is nothing to gain from this or to help but on closer on whatever the case maybe.  The victim now has to go own living with those scares for the rest of their life.  As for the offender who got off easy, what is keeping the offender from doing it again now since he or she got away with a lite punishment?  This also would put more fear into the victim.  With the system today there seems to be no way to heal the wounds of the victim, therefor we should make the punishments harder.  Friedman comments that an offense will only be committed if the value to the offender is more than the punishments that is expects.  Therefor if this is true we should make the punishments harsh and not more fitting than to commit the offense.   I think also while the offenders are paying their dues in prison they should be paying it off by working, doing road work and highway clean up.  The prison systems need to start teaching these inmates about responsibilities and educate them which I assume most in prison are uneducated, to truly start fully “rehabilitating” them.  I don’t think locking them in a cell all day and throwing them a basketball is really the right way of going by “rehabilitating”.    

More Severe Punishment for Repeat Offenders

Reading Freidman’s chapter on criminal law has left me with the same conclusion I have had at the end of all of his chapters, a little more lost. I have always had my own views on criminal law and the thought process that a criminal is thinking when committing a crime; but I have never went into such detail with it as Freidman will always do. I for one feel that making our current legal system a little more extreme could benefit society by punishing repeat offenders more severely; which I know in the mind of our government we already do with longer prison sentences and heftier fines. I’m talking about the people that just don’t give a crap anymore about what is right and wrong. Sure you have your killers and rapists that get a pretty extreme sentence when the crime is committed, but what about the repeat drug offenders, robbers, and drunk drivers? What do you do with the ones that just don’t get it? It is questions like these that make me think what a more ex ante punishment would do to these criminals. I have lived on that side of the fence before; fortunately I was one that did get it after a while. But I still have many friends, associates and even close relatives that are in and out of the legal system over and over again, and have been for anywhere between 15 – 40 years. These are all court, jail, and police costs that just fall onto the taxpayer’s wallets. I’m all for somebody to get a second chance, but what do you do when it is an eighth, ninth or tenth chance. This is where I think more strict punishment would benefit society. Like somebody who is arrested for repeated drug offenses, these are the main people that are clogging up our prisons and costing the taxpayers billions every year. These, mostly non-violent, criminals should be the ones chained together on the side of freeways picking up trash all day long. I’m not saying take a first offender that was just experimenting; I’m talking about the guys that cannot get it through their heads to not go back to that lifestyle. I know a guy that has been arrested for drunk driving nine times. They will take his license put him in jail for a months and he will get out to just to it again. Maybe his demeanor would be different if he knew that he would be chained to twenty other people and working for 10 hours a day rather than in bed sleeping, watching TV, and playing cards all day in jail. And to tell you the truth I don’t see anything wrong with cutting off somebody’s hand that has been to jail four or five times for stealing, apparently they are not using their extremities correctly. I really like Friedman’s thoughts on harvesting organs from the executed. Why not? If they have done something so horribly wrong to society that a juror has found them not suitable to live then they have lost all their rights to everything in my opinion. They have obviously weighed their options/ transaction cost in their head and determined that the crime was worth the chance of getting caught.

When I think of criminal law, my mind wonders to the topic of plea-bargaining. To what extent is it beneficial for the victim? It seems it is almost always beneficial for the offender. There are always the very rare, extreme circumstances. Does the victim and the victim’s family get anything from settling a case through plea barging? Yeah, the court case is over, but are they really satisfied? The offender just got a lighter sentence, but the victim does not have to take the stand and face the blood-sucking defense attorney or have the case dragged out by continuances the defense asks for to create a better case for the accused. Had the case not come to a close, it only prolongs the depression and all the other roller-coaster emotions the victim has that were evoked by participation in such an ordeal. So, the victim has to weigh the benefits of ending the case with a plea or following through with it to the sentence hearing in order to have a chance that their offender may get the full sentence. Now, what I wonder is that, is it really possible to make a decision like this and not have any regrets? I think it comes down to how well the victim copes and moves on with their life. And no, moving on does not mean forgetting the whole ordeal, it means learning from it and protecting yourself – not being a repeat victim. Then, it is important to find a balance and function in society by learning to trust your judgment again. Without finding this trust, the victim will be walking on eggshells for the rest of their life until they decide to make a change and get back to really living life.

Problems with the Economics of Crime

Friedman’s Chapter 15 was quite interesting to say the least. His analysis of the types of punishments criminals receive was interesting. In particular, he concludes his passage which shows the problems with prison time by saying, “It is as he had paid a fine of ten thousand dollars but we had collected a fine of minus ten thousand.”

Essentially, putting repeat, or the worst, offenders of crimes in prison is mildly effective in deterring other criminals, but it makes zero fiscal economic sense–both parties are losing. Additionally, our current system appears to function on a policy that heftier punishments will lower the amount of crime. I believe that this is not entirely true outside the world of theory that many enjoy becoming enveloped in.

Friedman writes that, “[A criminal] will commit an offense if and only if its value to him is more than the punishment he expects for committing it.” Only in theory my friends. The statistics remain that most criminals are in the lower socioeconomic strata of the population. Generally they are the least educated class in the population. If as a college student with many classes in law, policy, and economics I only understand a few of the laws and the associated penalties, how is a poor, uneducated criminal? Exactly.

I look forward to professor, or I believe now, Dr. Steeds lecture tomorrow about this topic. As radical as it may sound, from the first third of Friedman I have read, I would advocate more fines for petty crimes that don’t cost the law abiding taxpayers. Perhaps even putting our “true” (not your casual pot smoker) criminals to work instead of feeding them, entertaining them, and supporting them in conditions which can be even advantageous for some to commit crimes worthy of jail time.