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Do Penalties Keep People from Committing Crimes?


I'm very skeptical about the statement that penalties prevent people from committing crimes. There are obviously no facts to back this up (or are there?).

I often hear though that it's better not to do things that are against the law (the institute) because you could end up in jail. But in many cases crimes are committed, with or without a thought spent on ensuing penalties.

The prisons often haven't enough place to put the people away who are convicted of whatever crime (stealing, robbing, rape, war crimes, political "crimes", etc.). Especially in the U.S.A. ("thanks" to former President Clinton), a huge number of people are locked up for the tiniest offense.

So, people do commit crimes. Preconceived or due to circumstances. Maybe it can even be said that due to the punishments people commit crimes in most intractable ways, if preconceived.

All of this is the reason for my skepticism. Is my skepticism "justified"?


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I think it depends on the crime and the risk/reward calculation would-be criminals make. Will the benefits from committing this crime outweigh the risk of punishment?

Some crimes can clearly be prevented by the law, since as we have recently seen, weak law enforcement can lead to increased crime. NYC disbanded an anti-crime unit in June, and almost immediately shootings skyrocketed.

In 2014, California passed Proposition 47 that, among other things, made theft below $950 a misdemeanor. This made it exceedingly unlikely police would follow up on it; they're too busy dealing with felonies. As a result, some businesses have seen shoplifting rates increase dramatically.

Others, the risk of punishment just changes how they're executed. A determined criminal will just change his tactics to avoid punishment, rather than abandon the plot entirely. For example instead of shooting his wife, a disgruntled husband out for the insurance money will make it look like an accident.

Last, remember these risk/reward calculations don't have to make sense to you, the calm rational Stack Overflow user, they have to make sense to the emotional, short-sighted misanthrope. You and I wouldn't shoot someone over some petty dispute, but we're good at risk/reward arithmetic.

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  • As a result, some businesses have seen shoplifting rates increase dramatically. I wish I was living there! I got 5 days in a police cell after I took something for my wife's birthday. And I had to pay the shop 200 euros! +1, by the way. – Deschele Schilder Sep 16 at 18:47
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    We cannot prove objectively that something was prevented. But perhaps there is a subjective answer to your question. Have you shoplifted since then? To add further verification, I can state that I have not... I haven't shoplifted since I was caught long, long ago "liberating" a brass compass and protractor set in a German department store. – Nelson Alexander Sep 16 at 19:08
  • @NelsonAlexander In fact, I stole something this afternoon. But I didn't for a long time. Not because of the penalty awaiting. My wife is heavily against it and marks every move I make when we are shopping. I like to do it in a way she doesn't notice. And she didn't this afternoon. It was a little bottle of whatever... – Deschele Schilder Sep 16 at 21:03
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    I'm not really convinced by the evidence for the claimed causative relation between the reassignment of the 600 police officers and the increase in shootings in August 2020. The NYT article compares one week in August 2020 to the same week in 2020, but doesn't comment on whether the observed increase actually started after the reassignment. The same numbers could also be indicative of a steady, long-term increase in shootings that is unrelated to the reassignment. Note that I'm not saying that the claimed causation isn't there, but I'm wondering if there is better supporting evidence for it. – Schmuddi Sep 17 at 10:10
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If there is no law against an act, it's not a crime. So in fact, the law is the only thing that makes it possible to commit crime.

If the question is whether the law prevents certain acts (e.g. murder, theft), leaving aside how to define these acts that doesn't itself rely on some kind of normative law, it's hard to see how the existence itself of a law would provide an incentive to break it.

Since you complain about people who "are locked up for the tiniest offense" it seems that the question really is: Does strict law enforcement prevent crime?

In sociology of crime, the labeling theory holds that the strict enforcement of law can "label" people as criminals who would otherwise live normative lives. Because they were labeled as criminals, they continue to act as criminals. Thus the strict enforcement of law can cause even more crime by labeling more people as criminals.

On the other hand, the broken windows theory posits that visibility of crime leads to more crimes being broken. So if the law isn't enforced in the minor cases, more people see the law broken, which influences them as well to commit even more serious crimes. According to this theory, strict enforcement of law is necessary to prevent even greater crimes from being committed, and so law enforcement does prevent crime.

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  • If there is no law against an act, it's not a crime. I don't think crimes are law-related. Crime doesn't cease to be a crime when no laws are present. Because they were labeled as criminals, they continue to act as criminals. Thus the strict enforcement of law can cause even more crime by labeling more people as criminals. Good point and good answer! +1 – Deschele Schilder Sep 16 at 18:38
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    @DescheleSchilder "I don't think crimes are law-related. Crime doesn't cease to be a crime when no laws are present." - then apparently your concept of crime is some form of natural law, but when you talk about "the law" you mean the actual legislation or enforcement in a country – b a Sep 16 at 19:24
  • @ b a When you mentiion natural law, this is quite complicated but Spinoza in the. 'Polirical Theological Treatise (TTP) describes the 'state of nature's prior to organized communities. Wherein working together did not exist and seeking your own benefit was the 'Natural Law', and it marks organic human nature. From his standpoint you can have whatever your natural power can claim. Right and wrong are civil conventions required to establish Civilty. Crime from this view would not be morally wrong but not useful. Punishment while necessary need not be abusive, but still must be corporal and work – Charles M Saunders Sep 16 at 23:32
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    @CharlesMSaunders What you are describing is usually referred to as state of nature. Natural law is the position that morality is natural and not by convention. I was pointing out that if Deschele Schilder believes that crime is a crime even when no laws are present, he is assuming that crime is subject to morality by nature and not by convention – b a Sep 17 at 11:18
  • @DescheleSchilder You appear to be using definition two at MW: "a grave offense especially against morality". There's nothing inherently wrong with the usage, but it's non-technical, and you're on a website full of people who love technicality. Becareful yourself not to become to enmeshed in a equivocation. – J D Sep 19 at 17:37

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