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Crime and Punishment in the Post Broken Windows Era


The Link between Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment succinctly observed that, “[t]he man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.” But some people’s conscience fails to burden them enough to be a sufficient enough deterrent. For those people, it would appear that legal ramifications are perhaps the only thing preventing them from engaging in criminal behavior.

Though that perspective may seem like a cynical one, California Proposition 47 is a prime example of this unfortunate phenomenon in action. Proposition 47 was a referendum passed by California voters on November 4, 2014 that recategorized a number of nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies, thereby changing applicable sentencing guidelines. Notably, it created exceptions for crimes involving $950.00 or less.

The Public Policy Institute of California and preliminary FBI reports show an increase in property crimes as high as 12 percent since Proposition 47 took effect. It may be easy for some to dismiss this data as what former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would have called “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” It is possible that the rise in crime in the period immediately following the decrease in punishment is attributable to a different reason. Perhaps another factor is at play that is skewing the data.

Actually, there is another factor that may have increased the crime during this period, but it is still related to Proposition 47. In an LA Times interview, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said, “We’ve removed the disincentive, but we haven't created a meaningful incentive…We’re putting the people we’re trying to help in a position where we can’t help them.” The same article for which he interviewed stated that deputies are often foregoing narcotics arrests entirely (creating a 30% drop in narcotic arrests in total) because after all of the effort to arrest and prosecute, perpetrators serve so little time that it makes no meaningful difference. One need not be a statistician or sociologist to be aware of the link between drug use and property crime; so it is not such an unreasonable leap in logic to realize that more drug offenders on the street may also be contributing to more property crime.

Proposition 47 has also created exceptions large enough for drug offenders to avoid rehabilitation programs as well. Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig stated in an interview with the Daily Democrat, “It used to be that if you were caught in the possession of methamphetamine, you would be arrested; you'd end up in drug court or in some other program, probably in custody receiving some type of treatment.” He continued, “Well, now the officers on the street just give them a ticket.”

The public perception of the proportionality of crime and punishment may not always be the best indicator of what works best in society. As well-intentioned as lenient sentencing reforms may be, the reality of the issue is that the results are mixed. There are a variety of factors at play in the California scenario, but already groups in states like Ohio and Connecticut are pushing for similar reforms. It is unclear whether the changes are beneficial in the long run, but it would seem that significant parts of some states’ constituency wants this change. Whatever the result, the decision to move in the direction of more lenient sentences would be more beneficial if less emphasis were given to public perception and more on hard facts.