When I took criminology as an undergraduate over 40 years ago, we read this book by criminologists Frank Zimring and Gordon Hawkins. The short version of their argument is that deterrence seems like it should work from a conventional wisdom standpoint but in fact there is very little evidence that it does. Their finding has been consistently replicated over the intervening years.
They repeated an old story, which I’m paraphrasing (I don’t still have the book):
A man comes upon his friend on the sidewalk of a city street The friend is snapping his fingers every few seconds. The man asks what the friend is doing. “Keeping away tigers”, the friend replies. “That’s stupid”, says the man. “Do you see any tigers?” replies the friend.
The logic of deterrence assumes that people consider potential punishment and than coordinate their behavior accordingly. If we declare War on Drugs, people will stop dealing or using in order to avoid the new harsh sentences. If we declare a “no tolerance” policy on border crossings, even for asylum seekers, they will think twice about coming to the United States. If we tell them that we’ll separate their children from them if they commit the misdemeanor of undocumented crossing, they won’t try it.
This is precisely the logic the Trump administration is using. As this story from Philip Bump reports, they have been very explicit about it.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR that the point was to keep people from trying to enter the country.
“They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason,” he said. “But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.” He added that separating children from parents “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”
Data suggest that it hasn’t been.
So why doesn’t deterrence work as expected?
First, deterrence theory (and all rational choice views of criminality) assume that people are hedonistic; weighing potential gains against expected costs. But a great deal of criminality occurs by individuals who aren’t considering the implications of their actions. They get in a fight, they need a drug fix, they have mental illness challenges, they have family histories that encourage them to act out of established and dysfunctional scripts. After the fact, they will see that the cause (action) and effect (punishment) are related but not in the moment. They know their current situation is untenable and will do anything to get out of it.
Second, deterrence theory is often stated as an attempt to control a single action rather than seeing the available choice as one among a set of choices. In this regard, people decide that the risk of the current choice is preferable to the alternatives. Perhaps the drug dealer doesn’t see other opportunities that will provide him with economic sustainability within his community. He knows dealing is wrong and carries the risk of strict punishment but compared to the alternatives, perhaps it’s a good choice. (We’re currently reading Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Barking to the Choir in my Sunday School which connects these themes very well.)
Asylum seekers have been traveling for months to flee the harsh conditions of their homes. They consider the “critical fear” that they faced in their host country as a poor choice for their family. They have already dealt with smugglers and harsh conditions. Having decided not to stay at home or to stop along the way, they want to make their case for asylum to see if they can get residency in the US where their children don’t live under threat.
This is the problem with deterrence. Once you’ve bought into the false logic that punishment is the key to controlling behavior, you just keep ratcheting up the punishment.
If arrest doesn’t stop asylum seekers from trying to enter the US, then separate the children. If separating the children doesn’t act as a deterrent, put people in tent cities in isolated parts of Texas. If putting people in isolated parts of Texas doesn’t work, figure out some more public and humiliating punishment.
Whatever you do, just keep snapping your fingers or we’ll be overrun by tigers.