Crime and Policy: The flawed relationship


"Most social welfare policies are based on some version of the rational choice perspective on human behavior.  This perspective views people as rational beings who make choices based on self-interest.  Rational choice theory assumes that people are purposive and goal oriented; that humans have sets of hierarchically ordered preferences …and that in choosing lines of behavior, human beings make rational calculations with respect to the costs and benefits of various alternative behaviors.  The version of rational choice theory perhaps most familiar to social workers is social exchange theory.  This theory is based on the minimax principle, which simply states that people will make choices based on an assessment of which course of action will minimize costs and maximize rewards.  Behavior is explained using the simple calculus of rewards minus costs equals outcome.  It is assumed that if the result of this calculation is positive, the person will choose the behavior; if it is negative, the person will avoid the behavior.


"Probably the clearest example of rational choice theory in social policy is in the area of criminal justice.  We continue to increase the penalties for crimes based on the belief that people make rational choices regarding the commission of crimes.  We envision a person saying to himself, 'If I rob this store and get caught, the maximum penalty I'll get will be one year in prison.  That's not so bad and I really need the money, so I guess I'll do it.'  We then enact legislation to increase the penalty and assume that the person's conversation with himself will change to 'If I rob this store and get caught, I'm sure to get at least five years in prison.  That's really a lot so I guess I'd better not do it.'


"Social workers know that although rational choice certainly plays a major part in people's behavior, many other factors also enter into the equation.   Many policies fail, or are much less successful than they could be, simply because they are based on an inadequate understanding of the behavioral dimensions of the problem being addressed.  One of the major contributions social workers can make to policy analysis is bringing a much more sophisticated and multidimensional understanding of human behavior to the table than is usual among policy professionals" (Popple, Philip  R. & Leighninger, Leslie.  THE POLICY-BASED PROFESSION.  Allyn & Bacon: Boston, 2001, p. 94).


So, if I rob this store…..???????   Much of the time the robber doesn't even think about the potential cost if they are caught.  If they have been caught before, they often think that they now have improved their technique so that they won't get caught this time.  If they have not been caught before, they tend to think that they will get away with it.  This is often a very rational thought because they either know someone who has done this type of crime and gotten away with it or they have themselves done the crime before and gotten away with it.  Remember, most robbers are not caught in the act and few are caught later.  The police often solve the crime because someone else "rats" them out or the robber confesses when they are picked up on some other matter.


But that is just the tip of the iceberg of variables.  The robber rarely anticipates the unexpected.  The robber goes in expecting that the clerk will give him the money and he will leave.  Instead a police officer happens by, or a "good citizen" decides to intervene, or the storeowner resists or goes for their own gun and a "simple" robbery turns into a homicide!  That was never part of the thinking prior to the decision as to whether or not to commit the crime.


Then again, we have all kinds of issues unrelated to thinking in any rational manner.   The person is angry because they feel they have been unfairly fired, the person is not thinking clearly because they are using drugs or are intoxicated, so they are engaged in the robbery for many reasons unrelated to any thought process that bears any similarity to the "rational choice" process the policy creators had in their minds.  None of this justifies or excuses their behavior.  We are simply pointing out that the reasoning behind the policy making process is fundamentally flawed.


We also have the socio-economic element in the robbery.  The robber is going after the money in a Wendy's (like Philip Workman did), because he doesn't have the opportunity to cheat on his taxes, to embezzle from his employer, to steal something from the job site.  Those who end up in prison tend to be people from lower socio-economic backgrounds who commit violent crimes in order to get money because they tend to not have the opportunity to commit non-violent crimes in order to get money.  Perhaps we should develop policies that provide training in non-violent crime commission for lower socio-economic members of our society???  In so doing we would end up with far fewer of our citizens in prison because we imprison a very small percentage of those who commit non-violent crimes designed to get money. 


Note that the reason many of the crimes committed have nothing to do with getting money.  The motivation for crime is highly varied and far more complex than our policies even begin to appreciate.