Deterrents run on contrast.
The power of a deterrent must be, in some relationship, proportional to the difference between the penalty and its absence, or rather, life with the penalty and life without it. Meaning, of course, if your life is Hell, deterrents have a tough job. That’s why, despite his age, Charlie Manson is still always getting into trouble – because why not. What are they gonna do, take his TV away? Lights out early? Charlie don’t give a Goddam, because his life sucks already. Now if we told him that if he were to behave perfectly for a month that we’d set him free and give him a house somewhere with his new bride and cable, he might have to think about it.
See the difference there?
One, if he doesn’t spit on a guard he’s still in prison, and if he does he’s still in prison but he can’t watch Mike and Molly.
Two, if he spits on a guard, he’s in prison and can’t watch Mike and Molly, but if he doesn’t he’s a free man with a young wife who thinks the sun shines out of his ass – and HBO. (Have you SEEN “The Knick?” It is so cool!)
So the power of deterrents lies in the difference the penalties make in your life. So now let’s look at racial inequality in the justice system and policing, so much in the public consciousness right now.
In an inner city bad neighborhood, life is tough. There’s a lot of crime, gangs rule many aspects of life, the food supply sucks and the schools are not exactly on the good colleges’ lists. Many parents are either working long days to get by, or unemployed and depressed and/or addicted. The influence of the gang life starts young. When poverty is hurting you and yours, criminally acquired money must have a very strong pull. Things can look pretty hopeless, especially for the underclass races. Even for those who try, a good education requires money, and earn as much as you can, people in these neighborhoods often have no family money, no savings or even credit to help.
(Note: sure some make it, which is generally defined as ‘making it out,’ which, that’s our hint: a successful person from the ‘hood knows that his kids’ odds will be better if they grow up somewhere else. And saying some make it up and out, that is a small percent, and despite what the purveyors of the American Dream would have us believe, the larger percentages reflect the larger reality. It’s tragicomic that a few percent of anything is supposed to prove a rule. That really is some bad science.)
So, gang pressures, violence, bad food, the commodification of sex, and a very tough road to get out – contrasted with prison, I ask you: how different is it? Couldn’t that list describe either one, life in the ‘hood or life in prison? At that level of contrast, how much of a deterrent can prison really be? As proof of this rhetorical argument, consider the following possibility.
That the police appear to already know this. Could this be why they appear to have stepped up the penalties for crime all the way to a street execution? With the lack of police indictments and the extreme lack of police convictions, one could say they are sending a calculated message: never mind prison, the real deterrent is some level of likelihood that your sentence will be carried out in lieu of your arrest. This line of reasoning may also explain why there is so little movement towards non-lethal weapons for police; it may not be the effectiveness factor so much as that they don’t want to remove the real deterrent. So there’s the deterrent’s required contrast: a tough life with some happy times or a bloody death and a heavy loss for those who love you.
And still, still, even with the ultimate deterrent in place, still crime abounds, still the police have to follow through far too often. Even when the deterrent is the end of everything, people still misbehave. We’ve tried locking them up, we’ve tried killing them, where do we escalate to next? Maybe they’ll go full mob next, shoot the kid and then go after his family.
Or maybe we might have to grow up and explore the idea that punishment is a form of abuse, and actually causes more social problems than it solves. Like Charlie in the opening example, maybe if we offer our poor a life, a house, HBO, a chance to pursue some happiness, then maybe prison or a bloody death in the street will begin to look more unthinkable by comparison.
Because for folks in the ‘hood as it stands today, all too often, it’s not enough of a contrast to make a difference.