Swift, Certain, But Not Severe

Brandon Fuller Brandon Fuller

Crime rates in the United States are almost back to their 1965 levels. The incarceration rate, however, remains many times higher today than it was several decades ago. Getting back to the 1965 level would require a dramatic 80 percent drop. Mark Kleiman thinks it’s doable. What’s more, he thinks the US can bring its incarceration rate down while continuing to lower crime rates. For Kleiman, the path to a low-crime and low-incarceration equilibrium begins with reforms to parole — shifting from inefficient systems that arbitrarily hand down harsh and expensive punishments to systems where violations are met with punishment that is swift and certain but far less severe.

Theory and evidence agree: punishment that is swift, certain, but not severe will control the vast bulk of offending behavior. Severity is not only a poor substitute for swiftness and certainty, it is also the enemy of both. The more severe a sanction is, the less frequently it can be administered. (Prison cells are scarce and expensive, and the steeper the punishment, the more time consuming the processes required to avoid gross miscarriages of justice.)

As Kleiman points out, several US jurisdictions have successfully put the “swift, certain, but not severe” ethos to work:

The best-publicized program built on this set of principles is the HOPE program in Honolulu, which requires random drug tests of probationers and, for those who fail, an immediate short stint (typically two days) in jail, with no exceptions. The SWIFT program in Texas, the WISP program in Seattle, the Swift and Sure program in Michigan, and Sobriety 24/7 in South Dakota all work the same way, and all have the same results: drastic reduction in illicit-drug use (or, in the case of 24/7, alcohol abuse), reoffending, revocation, and time behind bars.

In Hawaii, HOPE clients are mostly longtime criminally active drug users with a mean of seventeen prior arrests. A drug treatment program would be delighted if it could get 20 percent of such a population into recovery—and most would quickly drop out and go back to drug use. But in a carefully done randomized controlled trial with 500 subjects, eight out of ten assigned to the HOPE program finished the first year of the program in compliance and drug free for at least three months, with no rearrest. Most of them either never had a missed or dirty test (which would have led to a forty-eight-hour jail stay) or had only one such incident. That suggests that more than mere deterrence is at work; HOPE clients seem to be gaining the ability to control their own behavior.

More self-control means less recidivism, less incarceration, and a less expensive criminal justice system. Kleiman’s entire article, published in The Washington Monthly is well worth reading.

Tile image by my_southborough.

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