Freedom of Information for Criminals: A Great Idea

After reading my post on 24/7 Sobriety, the criminologist David Kennedy was kind enough to send me a copy of Deterrence and Crime Prevention. His book is a tour de force not just for its intellectual value, but for its wisdom about why people do the things they do (cops and robbers both). One of the many valuable lessons of the book is that a good deal of crime can be prevented simply by giving criminals better, simpler information about what the rules are.

Kennedy gives the example of a young gang member with several prior convictions who did not realize that his next gun-related arrest would result in a long federal sentence, and ending up being sent upriver for 15 years for a minor violation (possessing a bullet). A number of other gang members then came in to check with the police to see if they were in the same legal situation and many found out to their surprise that they were. Some law enforcement officials might say “In revealing their status to them the police gave up the chance to send them away for a long time, like the guy with the bullet”. Exactly. The chance goes away because the criminals didn’t carry guns and bullets anymore, i.e., they were deterred once they understood what the rules were.

But deterrence isn’t the only reason to lay cards on the table with criminals. If you had a robot that punished with 100% accuracy every violation of any rule you imposed on your children, would you still tell your children the rules in advance, given that punishment would be perfectly applied with no effort on your part? Of course you would, because you care about your kids and therefore don’t want them punished unnecessarily. When your kids see you take the time to tell them the rules, they know that you care. Many criminals live in neighborhoods where the dominant narrative holds that cops/judges/majority society hate us. When a police officer or judge or some other law enforcement official takes the time to help them understand the rules, it undermines that narrative by showing that someone in authority cares about them. When people feel cared about and that life isn’t rigged against them, they are less likely to lash out and be destructive to themselves and the people around them.

To come back to 24/7 and HOPE probation, both programs have simple rules that are explained transparently to offenders at the outset. This contrasts with the usual situation in court, which is an offender being baffled by the proceedings and hoping meekly to escape punishment. The rules of the courtroom, probation and parole are complex even for the professionals, and the average criminal has lower education, IQ and literacy than the general population. Anyone who has been in court has seen a judge ask a defendant “Do you understand?” and seen the defendant look over at his/her lawyer for a cue, get a nod, and then say “Yes judge, I understand”.

From what I have seen, offenders in 24/7 and HOPE do understand the rules, and have the sense of being cared about, most particularly that the judge and the staff actually want them to succeed, which may be a key reason why most of them fact do succeed. And strikingly, even when they don’t, they typically draw the conclusion that is better for them and society: “I got punished because I screwed up, better not do that again”, rather than “I don’t know why I got punished but I know it wasn’t fair and someday, somehow, someone’s gonna pay”.