Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

October 29, 2010

I can’t think of witty play on “24/7 Sobriety”

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 9:51 am

Earlier this week I noted with interest that Boris Johnson is proposing that “24/7 Sobreity” programme for London. No matter what you think of Johnson, and count me in the camp that doesn’t believe he’s History’s Greatest Monster, this is an excellent idea. The deets:

Johnson is keen to introduce a “24/7 sobriety” programme which would involve people being forced to pay to be tested for alcohol twice a day after being convicted of drink-related crime.

Those who tested positive would appear in court and face the prospect of custody.

The scheme has already been implemented in the US state of South Dakota, which has reported a two-thirds drop in drink driving, a 99.6% compliance rate among the 16,000 people who have taken part and a 14% reduction in the prison population.

At first blush, this does sound like quite a draconian measure, but I’m going to agree with Mark Kleiman, inveterate liberal and drug policy wonk, that “there are two central principles of smart punishment“:

1.)  For actual human beings as opposed to economically rational expected-utility maximizers, certainty and swiftness of punishment matter a lot more than severity, in part because of behavioral economics and in part because a system that is certain and swift can also be fair, which randomized draconianism isn’t, and people are more willing to adjust their behavior if they think the system that’s pressing on them is reasonably fair. Moreover, severity is the enemy of certainty and swiftness, because severe punishments chew up scarce capacity and require a lot of time-consuming due process. That’s textbook criminology going back to Beccaria, but putting it into practice is tricky.

2.) The more effective a deterrent threat is, the less often is has to be acted on. Because the risk of punishment faced by an offender depends not only on the capacity of the authorities to punish but also on the rate of offending, there is a natural positive feedback in offending rates.  More offending means less risk for each offender; that’s the logical structure of a riot.  By the same token, as violation rates fall the risk of being punished for those who do offend rises.   That creates the possibility of “tipping” effects, situations which have both high-violation and low-violation equilibria.  In such a “tipping” situation, even a temporary increase in enforcement can lead to a lasting decrease in violation rates, and – this is the key point—that decrease can be sustained even after the additional enforcement resources are withdrawn.

Principle #2 leads to a strategic proposal:  when there’s not enough capacity to deter every possible violator of every rule—as there generally isn’t—then it makes sense to concentrate threats on some subset of offenses or offenders or areas, “tip” that subset to the low-offending equilibrium, and then move on. Because enforcement is costly and enforcement capacity is scarce, enforcers and potential violators actually share a common interest in having actual punishment not happen; therefore, authorities ought in general to “telegraph their punches,” issuing specific warnings to specific people in order to reduce the cost of the transition from high to low offending. And Principle #1 means that, if you can deliver on the threat of punishment quickly and reliably, you don’t need to threaten years in prison to change behavior—days in jail can be perfectly adequate.

Read the whole thing. The essence of the 24/7 prosposal is its certainty, with the added benefit of being cost-neutral. Similarly, unlike most policy aimed at a reduction in alcohol related crime (the blunt instruments of licensing restrictions, higher alcohol pricing etc) it is directed only at those individuals who are currently infracting. And just go back to the statistics from South Dakota, it’s almost freakishly effective.

And the bigger point here is that it will almost certainly reduce long term custodial sentences as well as offending rates, something that will aid in the laudable and smart government effort to reduce the prison population. Now, if the government can give serious consideration to emulating Hawaii’s HOPE Programme.

Cross-posted at Something Quotable

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