Warnings to offenders II

This is really important stuff.  The pilot implementation Mark relates will lead to refinements and improvements, but I do not think it will show the basic idea to be wrongheaded.

The most important modifications, I predict, will follow the discovery that a lot of the letters go unread or their contents denied.  Some will be deliberately left unopened, possibly for a long time, because of the return address, which surely indicates something unpleasant inside: “Oh, s__t, I don’t want to deal with this now” (now can go on for quite some time; the human mind is full of tricks).  Some will just be overlooked with the junk mail.   I have had students tell me they didn’t read the syllabus, quite late in the semester, as an excuse for missing a deadline, and one they obviously thought would have some weight. Some will miss the mark because the letter itself is, as several comments note, quite badly drafted; I have also had students misunderstand instructions in the syllabus because I had been too cute about stating them.

What would help this message connect with the targets?  IIRC, when Kennedy conducted the first version of this with teenage gangbangers, they were together in a room with relatives and friends and addressed in speech.  One important element of that framework that it’s viva-voce, which is the conventional mode of discourse for the audience, and the way we all communicate when we want to confirm that a message has been received.  A letter is what someone sends you (certified) to prove he sent it, not because he especially cares that you act on it. Like a credit card disclosure form or a stock prospectus, this letter is a supply-side act. A second element of the live/intervention format is that other people know the recipient got the message (here I would think the battered spouse would be an important witness to the event), and that the recipient knows they know he received it. I understand the difficulty in spamming everyone the offender knows with copies, or posting the thing on a lamppost near his house, but I bet some formal procedures and a live event with others present will be necessary to make this work as well it it can.

A letter like this swims in a sea of communication designed and delivered by professionals in communication, including especially advertising, that is intensely visual.  Maybe its gray all-text formality makes it stand out usefully, maybe not.  This is worth some experimentation.  Assuming it’s snail mail, it also arrives by a medium less and less used by any of us for anything.  Government seems regularly a day late and a dollar short using tweets, text messages,  cool media, and good graphics and typography for messages.  Even a few public service spots on TV announcing that ‘these letters have gone out, and if you or anyone you know might have received it, it’s urgent to read it and act accordingly’ would help (I would hope, not the sheriff in a headshot reciting those words!).

The underlying conceptual error is the same one my colleagues and I fall into when we talk about teaching: we talk about teaching–that is, what we do–and not learning, which is what the students are maybe not doing.  Sending a letter is pushing a string, like lecturing in a classroom.  I know on other evidence that Kennedy is especially aware of how the world looks to criminal offenders and how they manage risk, so I expect he’s already on top of the modifications indicated for Warn 2.0. [27/III: It turns out the High Point implementation is already Warn 2.0, maybe even 2.1; see David’s comments.]

In a comment, Kennedy (obviously speaking from experience) anticipates opposition to the general idea that we should warn people at great risk of doing a bad thing, who have indeed already done it, about how sure and severe the consequences will be.  I’m at a loss to understand this.  I conjecture  a really sick subconscious distaste for the scheme, something like “if you warn them they won’t reoffend and then we won’t be able to catch them and punish them”. I would hope this is rare among the skeptics of Kennedy’s program, but I can’t come up with a cavil I wouldn’t be ashamed to advance.  What’s not to like here, especially from the point of view of women spared yet another beating?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

22 thoughts on “Warnings to offenders II”

  1. If you drop a deliberately shocking personalized screed through the letterbox of a violent, self-justifying character with poor impulse control and a long habit of blaming everything upon their live-in victim, there may be quite a lot not to like about the sequel.

    My completely non-evidence-based instinct is that some sort of formal live meeting in a non-domestic environment might indeed be better, but I’d like to hear some input coming from people with direct experience of victim support – official or otherwise – here. And on the larger point, for that matter.

    One reason to object to any more general application is Matt’s point in the previous post. If extended to anything but the most serious cases, policies like this would practically write their own programs for pre-criminalization and lifelong institutionalized harassment of anybody to whom the authorities took exception. I see no reason to doubt under present conditions that this would happen, and no upside to it for anybody except the Powers That Be. So I’m a lot more open to persuasion about this specific application than I am about its extension to offences in general.

    1. Gray,
      As I understand this, it is not about pre-criminalization. You don’t give somebody a warning of this sort unless you can already put them in jail: NOW. It is an act of specific lenity, conjoined to a specific description of specific consequences. “Go and sin no more, or there will be hellfire to pay.”

      1. I was thinking about – in such contexts as public order – arranging the pre-criminalization on relatively trivial charges not worth breaking the bank to fight, in order to stalk the targets with life-abrading warnings that they are being monitored, and are now one tiny step away from a big fall as a repeat offender. Note that this could be done at much lesser expense and scandal than actually scooping such targets into prison on any comparable scale.

        I thought we were talking about people who could specifically not be put in jail NOW, but had in previous episodes expended all the law’s patience in case of any further repetitions.

        David Kennedy’s clarification of the way in which the letter is delivered deals with my more specific and immediate concern, namely the abuser’s instant reaction.

        1. We have names for regimes that go about “arranging the pre-criminalization on relatively trivial charges not worth breaking the bank to fight, in order to stalk the targets with life-abrading warnings that they are being monitored, and are now one tiny step away from a big fall as a repeat offender.” They’re called probation and parole. In practice they cannot be made to work for large populations (absent something like Mark’s HOPE which dramatically changes how they are applied). For problems like DV, with offending largely out of public view and victims under all sorts of pressures not to report, they’re even harder to make work. Thus our attempt to create these special regimes.

    2. From experience, if you take a violent person and publicly shame him or her, you are setting the stage for the next act. Sometimes they don’t even get all the way out of the office. Doing this by letter is better, and I don’t see an alternative, but I think there is a risk of immediate subsequent violence, the recipients being notoriously lacking in impulse control, and willing to blame the victim for his/her victimhood.

      The only suggestion I might make is a parallel letter to the victim or victims telling her or him of the original letter.

  2. Actually, the letter could be effective as drafted, in a hieratic way. But its only function is hieratic, and it must be coupled to some easier means of communication.

  3. The letter was hand-delivered by a team of law enforcement and community people, and was part of a larger intervention involving an hour-and-a-half meeting involving a broad range of law enforcement representatives, social service providers, community actors, and DV victims.

    The broad-application worry turns this on its head. The point of these interventions is that the targets are to be treated specially – that is, having been exposed to existing law and legal practice, which they have come to understand all too well and which has demonstrably not influenced their behavior, they are going to be singled out for special discretionary treatment. This letter, which is only part of a larger process, put them on notice of that. (Even if the technique were to be used broadly – for which there would be no point – they would not “pre-criminalize.” The criminal law is what it is – communicating it doesn’t change that. The point of this kind of communication is to bring expectation into line with reality.)

    1. I think that the special-treatment part is important to remember. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t apply the full-court press to every possible offender (and that lesser measures may not be that effective). But the whole point of the targeted approach is to avoid having to do full-court press on everyone…

      I wonder whether a text message might be more effective, not only as a more-certainly-delivered medium of communication, but also as a reminder of how how instantly offenders can be put away.

    2. The delivery method disposes of my worst worry. I hope the longer-term outcomes will work out as well: goodness knows something has to be tried.

      I agree there is no legitimate point to using the technique for other purposes. This is not the same as saying there is no point in guarding against its illegitimate extensions. Again, your added context suggests the abusive trick which first occurred to me wouldn’t actually make much sense.

      My use of “pre-criminalization” was evidently opaque if not actually obtuse: see my response to Ebenezer Scrooge for what I’d intended by it. I still don’t agree that “the law is what it is,” is as applicable to every situation as it is to this one. The manner, context, and intent of the statement are also what they are – and not necessarily innocent. However, since I have no quarrel with them in this case, and the total intervention is far less portable or scalable than I’d supposed, the horse is looking rather moribund now, and it ill behoves me to flog it any further.

    3. The criminal law is what it is – communicating it doesn’t change that.

      This point I would disagree with, quite strongly.

      One important way to look at these deterrence regimes (this example, Project Exile) is as a commitment device for the police and prosecutors. Agreed that the law always made certain penalties available; a public commitment to use them is something rather more than that.

      And I (with Gray Woodland) think this would be a very easy way to discourage protests; arrest people for trespassing/disobeying city regulations, let them off with a warning (most active protesters have multiple arrests of that sort), and then publicize that “if Joe, Jack, or Jill is arrested ONE MORE TIME we’ll charge them with Habitual Trespass and jail them for 10 years.”

      1. Exactly wrong.

        Exile was a public promise on the the part of local police and federal prosecutors to give anybody exposed to a federal sanction for gun possession that gun possession. It was a promise that in practice could not be and was not kept: nearly all eligible violations did not go federal. It was thus what we call, in technical language, a lie. Ethnographic work with exposed offenders indicates that not only did they suss this out immediately, but that they then interpreted those federal prosecutions that did occur in terms of bias and racism. The same applies to the “Jack and Jill” example above: that threat could not be delivered in practice. The point of these warnings (and related moves in Ceasefire, HOPE, etc.) is to communicate new sanction regimes that are real, are not understood by those exposed to them, and that are thus in the interest of the recipient to understand.

        I return to my point in the first post in this discussion:

        “I’ll note that I’m regularly perplexed by the opposition to the very simple ideas represented in the Ceasefire/HOPE/drug market intervention/24-7 new deterrence thinking. The simple idea here is, if you’re prepared to do something drastic to somebody the next time he crosses a line, let’s tell him so. Say that, and step back for the wave of carefully reasoned arguments about why that’s a bad idea. So let’s go with the opposite: when you’re prepared to do something drastic to somebody the next time he crosses a line, let’s NOT tell him. Doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

  4. A while ago – maybe 8 years, so I don’t remember all the details – I received a letter informing me that I had been selected to be in a federal health survey. The letter was about 2 pages single-spaced, in a small font, and was written in very sophisticated language. I thought this was a significant flaw, since many people in the sample would have difficulty understanding it.

    I contacted the agency (NCHS, I believe), and eventually received a thoughtful response from the survey administrator (U Michigan survey research center, I think), explaining that they had tested various letters and that this format resulted in a HIGHER response rate than less formal and more comprehensible texts. Apparently the impression made by the formality was more imporant than making the details comprehensible.

  5. “In a comment, Kennedy (obviously speaking from experience) anticipates opposition to the general idea that we should warn people at great risk of doing a bad thing, who have indeed already done it, about how sure and severe the consequences will be. I’m at a loss to understand this. ”

    I wouldn’t waste too much time trying to understand it. One thing that the internet has made abundantly clear is that there is a large contingent of humanity that are against change, ANY change in ANYTHING for ANY REASON whatsoever. To take a non-political example, read the comments at any tech blog when a story comes out talking about, I don’t know, proposed improvements to the WiFi spec, or higher resolution displays, or more powerful CPUs. No matter what it is, there will be at least a quarter of the commenters chiming in with how this is a terrible idea, the beginning of the end, the takeover by the forces of idiocy and evil. And this is not even by Unabomber types; this is by people who claim to be technology enthusiasts — it’s just that the technology of right now is perfect and should never change.

    It is truly astonishing; but it is also now so predictable that one has to simply accept that this is a substantial part of the psychology (or socialization?) of large numbers of our fellows.

  6. David,

    In Mark’s previous post, he noted that this begs for a randomized trial, but for ethical reasons High Point officials decided against such an effort.

    I’m a card-carrying statistician who designs studies as part of my career. I’ve done some work with colleagues in sociology and criminal justice, and it has struck me (often) that randomized trials are seriously under-used especially in criminal justice research.

    What were the specific ethical issues that High Point folks were concerned about?

    1. The obvious ethical risk is that the victims of the “control” group are exposed to risks that (we think) can be reduced by issuing the warning. Often enough, the randomized trial comes “for free,” because the program’s capacity is way smaller than the eligible pool. In this case, they had 29 certified jerks, and assigning half of them as a control group would have been expensive in program terms. In addition, the experiment would have been grossly under-powered; 15 experimentals and 15 controls is anecdote, not data.

      Better to use historical norms as controls; in effect, find 29 folks who fit the profile as of two years ago and see how many new crimes they committed in the interim, compared to the crimes committed by the people who got the letters over the next two years. Even then, you might get a Type II error (wrongly fail to reject the “no-difference” hypothesis) if the program is only weakly effective. If it’s as effective as HOPE, you might be able to detect a signal even with a small sample size.

      1. Thanks, Mark. I was wondering if there was something beyond the suspected risk to the victims.

        As far as the potential errors go, as I move into curmudgeonhood, I’m increasingly adopting a hybrid of Frank Graybill and John Tukey’s philosphies. Graybill says, define interesting parameters, and put appropriate intervals on them. Tukey said, hypothesis tests are usually (at best) the right answer to the wrong question and often a wrong answer to the wrong question. The first goal should be to characterize the direction of an effect, if one exists. The second is to put increasingly tight bounds on the magnitude.

        Historical controls are probably adequate in this case. A case-control study might be even more effective: take the 29 jerks and find another North Carolina jurisdiction similar in make-up to High Point (or several jurisdictions, even). Find near matches for High Points jerks on the relevant dimensions and look at the re-offense rates.

        1. Let me amend Mark’s point. This move was one (small) part of a new structure designed to deal with DV offenders from their first contact with authorities through various escalating stages of repeat offending. In that context a random trial for this element made no sense. In other settings such warnings would be wonderfully open to RCTs. I’m on record as being thoroughly opposed to RCTs as the only standard for being “evidence based,” but they are a good tool in the right setting, and this intervention absolutely lends itself to that test in that right setting.

  7. “I conjecture a really sick subconscious distaste for the scheme, something like “if you warn them they won’t reoffend and then we won’t be able to catch them and punish them”. I would hope this is rare among the skeptics of Kennedy’s program, but I can’t come up with a cavil I wouldn’t be ashamed to advance. What’s not to like here, especially from the point of view of women spared yet another beating?”

    I think it’s more of a fact than a conjecture, and it’s based on many cultural strains. Misogyny is of course a huge one, as usual. Another is that imho, Americans are more comfortable with a certain amount of chaos. The amount of social services/therapy/intervention/interfering with your neighbors that we’d have to do to make serious *preventive* inroads against domestic abuse of all kinds would require a real reawakening here. It would have to start really young, and we don’t even have universal preschool here. We’re basically in the Dark Ages, with a few CPS workers out there trying to stop the really aggravated cases.

    My point is, this stuff starts in childhood and if we wanted to stop it, we’d have to get serious about therapy, which many here still think is a joke, or if not, still not worth the spending of public funds. I’ve never bought this argument that DV starts because someone “snaps.” No, they beat whoever it is they’re beating because they believe – based on their lived experience – that they have a right to do it. Also, they have a whole lot of unresolved garbage roiling in their subconscious and they weren’t raised to control it. This is why so few people ever “lose their temper” with Mike Tyson.

    What’s interesting about this letter business is it seems like an attempt to try to change the larger environment, with all that theory of mind stuff (I think that’s what it’s called).

    1. And in fact, if you look at the history of our criminal justice system, there is a logic behind it and it’s not too far off from what you describe.

    2. Many people *LOVE* to have bad guys punished. There is a huge market for punitive measures, the harsher the better. That’s one reason the death penalty is so popular, and long prison sentences (the US is a world-beater in that category, at least among countries that would be widely recognized in the US as civilized). Look at the many laws in the US punishing felons *for life* – they lose the right to vote, or to get social benefits etc, often forever. There is no public impulse to remove those laws (which are unheard of in Canada, among other places.) Indeed the Uniform Law Commission considered a study of them to see if they could be reduced, but found they were so popular that listing them was likely to cause copycat legislation in places that had not yet thought up yet another sanction.

      So I think it could be a substantial part of opposition to this kind of measure that it would be letting a bad guy get away with something – even if it’s not, and it is intended to prevent another offence and spare the otherwise foreseeable victim.

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