Let’s say hypothetically that you were in charge of picking out a prison director.

The first is a Sheriff Arpaio type. He wants prisoners humiliated wearing pink and working on chain gangs and living in tents. Maybe he wants to throw them in a dungeon. Or, if you think that’s excessive, pick whatever level of punishment that you feel that the criminals have coming to them. Criminals that have gone through his program have a 78% recidivism rate. In other words, 78% of the time, criminals released from his facility end up committing crimes again and end up in prison again.

The second is a college-professor-turn-prison-director. He wants to feed the prisoners very well and afford them luxuries more commonly associated with a luxury hotel. They sleep in nice beds, get to eat what they want, have free entertainment, and free vocational training or classes in subjects that interest them. No expense is spared in order to keep them busy and they end up being afforded luxuries that they couldn’t afford on the outside. Criminals that have gone through his program have a recidivism rate of 35%.

In this hypothetical scenario, and all other things being equal and the decision entirely in his hands (and not in some judge’s or legislature’s), who would you hire?

If you would hire the first guy, how low would the recidivism rate of the second need to be in order for you to reconsider?

If you would hire the second guy, how low would the recidivism rate of the first need to be in order for you to reconsider?

In other words, how much justice would you be willing to sacrifice for the sake of a crime reduction?

This is a question I’ve been pondering lately in less hypothetical terms and am curious of your thoughts.


AC and Web bring up interesting points as to why the recidivism rates may not be the appropriate statistic. The question, at root, is this: if treating criminals much, much better than they deserve were an effective deterrent against future crime… would it be worth forsaking justice in order to do it? How much of a deterrent would it have to be for you to consider it. Given the openings I laid out for the premise itself to be disputed, I probably should have just asked the question more abstractly.

On the hand, the enthusiasm with which people (and I have no doubt that I am a part of this) would try to realign morality with practicality (making their moral preference also the logical one), which is a separate subject I’m interested in. I’ve been mulling over a post on that subject for months now. This one, admittedly, picks a little on the right. There are other subjects (torture, profiling, etc) that pick on the left. The post has been a long time coming because I am unable to phrase it in a way that won’t become a right vs left smackdown, which I generally try to avoid.

Note: I’m not saying the recidivism rates would be lower. Nor do I intend to use this as an argument in favor of “rehabilitation.” Rather, the central question is whether we would tolerate more crime for the sake of justice, or whether we would accept the injustice of bribing criminals to behave themselves. If these numbers are too far apart, what sort of uptick in recidivism would you consider acceptable to accept the injustice? A little? A lot? None at all?

Category: Courthouse

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18 Responses to Hypo: Crime & Punishment

  1. a_c says:

    The first question I’d ask is what happened to crime rates after a few years under each regimen? If crime rates increase under the lenient regimen (which would follow the typical people-respond-to-incentives dictum), then even the lower recidivism rate may not be worthwhile from a practical standpoint.

  2. trumwill says:

    Presumably, if people responded to the people-respond-to-incentives dictum, recidivism would be higher to prisons that treat them better.

    But right now let’s say that you don’t have that information. Too many variables at play.

    I suppose it would be possible to see a large enough increase in new offenders to offset the number of criminals coming out clean. I’m skeptical that it would negate anything more than a small difference in recidivism, though, as from what I understand it’s repeat offenders that create the most problems. Or is there another reason that you can think of that cushy prisons might lead to an increase in crime?

    It’s an interesting question.

  3. Brandon Berg says:

    I’m with a_c. What’s the effect does this have on the propensity to commit crimes of people who have not yet been to prison. Ultimately, I want whatever reduces the crime rate the most, assuming cost are equal. While I find the idea of rewarding crime unpleasant, my first concern is keeping innocent people safe, and I’m not willing to trade much of that just to spite criminals.

  4. ? says:

    Megan had a post a while back on “altruistic punishment”: how much are we prepared to sacrifice (in terms of, in this example, higher crime and recidivism rates) in pursuit of executing abstract justice. The answer turns out to be: quite a bit.

    Truth be told, I’d put myself in this category, at least on the present question. The 85-35 differential would probably be too costly, but at some lower differential I would revolt at the notion of putting criminals in luxury hotels.

  5. Peter says:

    It would be a very difficult choice, but I’d reluctantly have to go with the second guy. Coddling criminals in prison is bad, but repeat offenders are worse.

  6. Webmaster says:

    I don’t think the comparison offered is valid. You’re simply leaving out too much data.

    In order to try to make the comparison between both prison programs, you need to compare both the recidivism rate and the overall crime rate per capita. Further complicating things is the fact that the more it’s just the “hard-core” criminals (those who would be criminals no matter what the punishment situation was) being incarcerated, the worse an indicator of actual performance the recidivism rate will be.

    In Arpaio’s case, the criminals in his jail are – and let’s be honest here – mostly complete scum. His jail is overflowing with violent, habitual thugs. We’re talking drug runners, smugglers, members of incredibly violent and racist gangs, etc. He also has to deal with an incredibly large influx of people who shouldn’t even be in his county (and who are directly connected to the criminal behaviors), which pushes up both his “recidivism” rate and his “crime per capita” rate by the numbers.

    In the case of the second (which you fail to link to) the “prison population” is much more filled with “non-violent” prisoners. He gets a steady, revolving door of people whose crimes may not even merit jail time in many jurisdictions, merely a heavy fine. The result? His “numbers”, at least on recidivism rate, look better not because he does a better job, but because his prisoner population is selected for him to make him look better on the “recidivism” front.

    And this is the problem with this discussion. The situations are too different to make a real comparison, and saying we should judge “based on recidivism rate alone” is an invalid argument.

  7. Peter says:

    So the second case is a real one? Where is it?

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    His jail is overflowing with violent, habitual thugs. We’re talking drug runners, smugglers, members of incredibly violent and racist gangs, etc.

    Hey, don’t knock smugglers. This country was built by smugglers.

  9. trumwill says:


    You bring up some good points about why recidivism rates may be different due to external factors, but in this hypothetical, assume that neither the first nor second candidate run prisons geared towards specific types of offenders.


    Neither of these exist specifically. This is not a case where I’m going to pull some curtain back and say “You’ve just endorsed Vermont’s penal system over Virginia’s! Hoowah!”.

    I’ve been mulling over the subject because I recently read an article about Supermax prisons and the article suggested pretty strongly that these prisons leave prisoners ill-equipped to re-enter the real world. That got me thinking a bit about my experiences with parolees in Deseret.

    That got me thinking more abstractly about the discomfort I have at the notion of bribing criminals to behave. The common dismissal of the idea is that we shouldn’t because it wouldn’t work. But what if it would? I absolutely hate the notion of doing it, however effective. But I also have a feeling of cutting off the nose in spite of the face.

    I didn’t outline the Britain/US specifically because (a) I don’t know how true it is because the article was biased, (b) there are other factors at play, and (c) I didn’t want to provide room wherein someone could go find an alternately biased source (or alternate explanation) to dispute the premise. I am more interested in the premise than I am the specifics of US and British criminal justice policy.

  10. trumwill says:

    Thanks for the forthright answer. And for the link to Megan. I knew that I had seem questions like this posed before, but couldn’t remember where.

  11. Becky says:

    Like others have said, there are so many other questions that make it hard to make a decision — but in this economy, it sure would be difficult to see people that committed crimes have better treatment than those that have not but are unemployed and perhaps homeless.

  12. David Alexander says:

    I’d personally pick the second type, but I’m biased since I have an older brother and cousin who are ex-convicts.

    Interestingly, given the lifestyles of some criminals, the latter solution may end up being a more luxurious lifestyle.

  13. econoholic says:

    If you would hire the second guy, how low would the recidivism rate of the first need to be in order for you to reconsider?

    35% (assuming that the base crime rate remains unchanged). I’m a strict utilitarian. I want less crime. As someone who has experienced crime firsthand and has friends who have as well, any policy that leads to less crime is better in my view. Abstract notions that we should punish people are simply abstract notions.

    Let’s rephrase your question to represent what we are really talking about:
    How many additional homes do you feel it is acceptable to have robbed so that you can feel good about criminals being punished?
    How many additional women do you feel it is acceptable to have raped so that you can feel good about criminals being punished?
    How many additional people do you feel it is acceptable to have murdered so that you can feel good about criminals being punished?

    And yes, we are talking just about you feeling good. Because the only other reasons for jail are the more rational ones: reduce recidivism and reduce the incentive for people in the future to commit crimes.

  14. trumwill says:


    You bring up some great points.

    So you wouldn’t say that there’s at least some social value in evil being punished? It seems that there may be an argument to be made that social esteem has some value. That’s a practical argument in favor of the death penalty and a practical argument against the War on Drugs (the social problems it creates by causing distrust of the police in certain communities). Or is it your position that these issues should be approached on purely criminal justice practical grounds without social consequences?

    I think that I fall more on your side than on the other, though. But I’m not sure. A big part of the reason for this post was to help me wade through the issue.

  15. Webmaster says:


    I’m still going to say this is a false comparison – and cannot be anything but – simply because you have multiple types of criminals. You have the ones who did something stupid and got caught, once, but who have a decent learning reaction. You have the ones who’ve gotten away with more and more crimes (either uncaught, or too leniently sentenced) until they are finally caught doing something seriously severe and sent to jail as repeat offenders. You have the ones who are so dirt poor and/or unskilled at anything valued in society that prison is “better”, or at least equivalent, a lifestyle compared to outside. You have the ones who simply lack, cognitively, the ability to connect cause/effect and predict future consequences. And you have “potential criminals” who weigh the risk/reward variables (risk of being caught and punishment severity VS reward of getting away with crime) and decide that the potential reward is worth the risk (some of the “poor” category obviously fit this bill, since prison may even find its way into the “potential reward” column).

    For the final case – those who weigh risk/reward and choose to commit the crime anyways – a heftier reward may not just reduce recidivism, but may either concurrently or contradictorily reduce first-time offenses. Someone who decides not to commit a crime at all is one less potential number in the recidivist data.

    That’s why you can’t judge on recidivism alone. The “all other things being equal” option simply fails to exist in reality and further fails to even offer a usable, discussion-oriented approximation of reality.

  16. trumwill says:

    Like I said, it’s a hypothetical question geared towards determining the degree to which you (and each reader) might accept or embrace injustice if it had positive results.

    Ironically, the nature and tone of your objections to the question answered it.

    -{This comment was modified by its author}-

  17. Larry Ayers says:

    Interesting topic. I deal daily with ex-cons here in Hannibal, MO — one of them rents an apartment from me and lives just down the hall. I can’t say that I know the best way to deal with prisoners. I do know that our current drug laws clog the prisons with folks who shouldn’t be there, and the traumatic experience tends to confirm them to a fate in the shadowy margins of society. The bitterness engendered by incarceration tends to reinforce a two-tiered society.I think. Once someone is convicted of a felony voting rights are withdrawn and jobs are hard to find. Is it any wonder that many parolees return to a life of crime? Disenfranchisement tends to do that to people.

  18. trumwill says:

    Larry, there are good arguments to be made that our criminal justice system is too lenient or too harsh. Our system surely has cases of each. Sometimes, oddly, it can be both in the same case. That’s somewhat outside the scope of this post, though. The question is less about which approach is better, but whether or not we would be willing to forsake due punishment for the sake of expediency (if it were demonstrated that the alternative was, in fact, unjust and expedient).

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