When Hume said that all government depends entirely on opinion, he could have been talking about crime control. Deterrence as a strategy relies on the opinions of offenders about what will happen to them; a severe penalty that the offender doesn’t anticipate has no deterrent effect. And in fact many offenders, especially those subject to special laws such as the Armed Career Criminal statute or repeat-offender sentencing, and those who are special enforcement targets as high-rate offenders, have no idea how heavy the hammer is until it lands on them.
That suggests that enforcement agencies should directly communicate deterrent threats to the people they’re trying to deter. (In a non-zero-sum game, communication can have content.) Roughly, the message is “Hey, YOU! Yeah, YOU! Here’s what YOU’ve been doing that we don’t want YOU doing any more, and here’s what’s going to happen to YOU if YOU don’t stop it, pronto!” That’s the burden of a HOPE warning hearing, or a Ceasefire-style gang call-in, or the meeting with all the dealers in a High-Point-style low-arrest drug crackdown.
Well, David Kennedy has been at it again. Thirty habitual domestic assailants in High Point, NC, just received letters on the model of the one below. The text is from a real letter; the name has been changed to protect the guilty. Each letter is hand-crafted to a single offender.
February 21, 2012High Point Police Department High Point, North Carolina 27260
Dear Mr. Jones,
Your continual behavior in the domestic violence arena has recently come under the scrutiny of the High Point Domestic Violence Task Force. Our Task Force is taking a strong stance against those individuals who continually abuse their respective partners and do not comply with Domestic Violence Protective Orders. The High Point Police Department and the High Point Community Against Violence and other partners are working closely to stop domestic violence in any form.
We have researched your individual record, Mr. Jones, and we have determined that if you assault another person and cause injury, we will be able to charge you with a Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault. Additionally, if you commit another Felony, we will be able to charge you as a Habitual Felon. Your cases will be handled in Superior Court, and we have a commitment from the Guilford County District Attorney’s Office that they will prosecute you for those felonies to the fullest. You should be aware that if you are charged with a Felony Habitual Misdemeanor Assault, we will be able to charge you as a Habitual Felon as well. If convicted of a Class I felony, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 35-44 months. If convicted of a Class H felony (which is the class for Habitual Misdemeanor Assault), your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 89-111 months. If convicted of a Class G felony or higher, your minimum, mandatory active sentence could start anywhere between 103-128 months.
Of course, we hope that you will follow all of the laws of North Carolina, and it is our hope that we will not have to charge you with any crimes. Please be forewarned, Mr. Jones, that you have come onto our radar, and we are watching for any crimes you may commit in the future with a new, particular interest. Domestic violence will not be tolerated.
Because of your criminal record you are a Federal Felon and are prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition at any time for any reason good or bad.
Chief Jim Fealy
I bet this works. I’d love to see the same approach to everyone on the LAPD “ten percenter” lists and similar lists elsewhere. And it just begs for an experimental design, though High Point decided that they couldn’t justify ethically not sending a letter to anyone they’d identified as eligible. This is the secret to having less crime and less punishment.