Deterrence is a topic long-discussed in the annals of criminology. Social scientists of every stripe have opined as to whether a given sanction has the potential to deter individuals from committing crimes. On one level the discussion is almost formulaic: The potential sanction should be proportionate to harm. This is how we have evolved a series of graduated punishments where you get a fine for an expired parking meter; and you get executed for premeditated murder.

Deterrence is a topic long-discussed in the annals of criminology. Social scientists of every stripe have opined as to whether a given sanction has the potential to deter individuals from committing crimes. On one level the discussion is almost formulaic: The potential sanction should be proportionate to harm. This is how we have evolved a series of graduated punishments where you get a fine for an expired parking meter; and you get executed for premeditated murder.

The philosophy undergirding this grand scheme is perfectly logical, has a long historical provenance and is fundamentally flawed. The error in it stems from our basic assumptions about human behavioral choices. Our understanding of that which inculcates deterrence is predicated on a world of rational actors. Intrinsic rationality assumes we make choices based on utility maximizing strategies. This is to say, we weigh the potential benefit of committing a crime versus an estimation of possible penalties if caught.

That’s a fine model except we never have complete or accurate information about the true probabilities involved. Moreover, we act within an environment of multi-faceted, interwoven, sometimes contradictory information. We are in some instances Bayesian and in others, swept along by incalculable anomic passions. In short, our mental math contains too many unknowns to authoritatively declare that dangling penalty “X” in front of a would-be offender is by itself sufficient to deter him. While the threat may have some purchase, other influences — anger, addiction, psychosis, detachment, hubris, zealotry, stupidity — may all trump any rational estimation of risk.

This argument received support recently in a National Research Council report on the deterrent effect of the death penalty. As Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Nagin, chair of the council’s study committee, observes: “Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates.”

Nagin said the panel reviewed the work of “dozens” of researchers since the 1976 Supreme Court decision ended a four-year national moratorium on executions.

“We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some, but no one is well served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides,” Nagin said.

A very similar set of conclusions emanates from 1990s research by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. This study of mid-level drug traffickers reveals several important things about their decision process. Foremost among the revelations is the fact that drug dealers engage in a type of mental risk neutralization whereby they consistently underestimate their risk of apprehension and possible length of sentence. What’s worse, across the board, they state that no risk is too great (i.e. no potential punishment is sufficiently deterring) if the potential payoff is high enough. Collateral to these neutralization techniques is perhaps the most chilling finding of all: Going to prison was simply regarded as a “cost of doing business.” Roll the dice long enough and eventually you come up snake eyes.

None of this should be taken as a clarion to throw up our hands and let criminals do what they will. Rather, it is a call to take a frank and honest look at our basic assumptions about crime and punishment. Clearly, we must have a formal mechanism for dealing with those who flout the most universal of our collective sentiments. To ignore destructive, hurtful or immoderate behavior is to invite its increase. Knowing this, we have developed the aforementioned rubric of “this crime equals that much punishment.” Such inventions are just and good so long as they do not exist merely to satisfy a purulent lust for Old Testament smiting.

Nietzsche once wrote, “The broad effects which can be obtained by punishment in man and beast are the increase of fear, the sharpening of the sense of cunning, the mastery of the desires; so it is that punishment tames man, but does not make him ‘better.’” The more important question is whether the punishments we devise actually make the rest of us any better.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com