Is society’s attitude towards crime irrational?

It seems that criminology is one of these topics when discussed is the breeding pot for logical fallacies. I may not be the most rational person but when it comes to discussions I find it’s better to read up on the issue and I would expect that juries and judges never mind the average person would do this.

The main problem seem to stem from the justice system’s (Western World) obsession with punishment and deterrence. It doesn’t matter what your life situation was, what your psychological state was, what your intention was or even what the most rational thing to do prevent re-offending and make you into a productive citizen is, as long as you commit the crime you do the time. Locked up with other criminals to ‘scare’ you away from crime. And when little Johnny sees that his parents will tell him “If you do crime, you’ll go to this bad place”. So a good number of people believe that harsh punishments stop most people from raping, killing, stealing etc.

The problem I have with that is this tends to be a fundamental attribution error. Do most women not commit bank robberies even if they could because they are deterred by laws or because some socio-biological factors may be at play causing men to be more prone to taking the risks to do that? Do most men not rape because it’s considered a cowardly act and vigilantes in prison target rapists and sex offenders or might it be that life circumstances and biological factors do not make them likely to consider rape?

What do you think?

I think you are over-stating it. I grant you that most people don’t commit crimes because they have been socialized not to commit crimes, but that does not mean the belief that consequences deter behavior is irrational.

Sometimes people are irrational actors. Not always. Do you drive thru a known speed trap at 90 miles an hour?


I suppose deterrence is based on whether an individual believes their current life (relationships, social value, personal identity, financial status, likes/dislikes) /future life prospects are worth committing crime for. Let me give an example.

A 19yr old isolated white male living in a middle class neighborhood with a single mother and getting bullied by boys and mean teachers may think that murder-suicide is his option. He may plan to buy guns and shoot up the school suddenly getting caught by his mother. She would warn him that doing this would land him in prison for life and destroy his mother’s reputation, but she does her best to help her son by removing him from that environment and changing her relationship with him. With help from his mother and others in order to try and improve his life, he may be ‘deterred’ by the act not for its criminal status but also his value for his mother’s life and his life.

A 19yr old isolated black male with extreme self-esteem issues living in the exact same middle class neighborhood with a single, religious mother and gets bullied because of his race in the same scenario as the other male will probably behave the same. However if his mother instead of helping him simply threatens him with prison or the threat of spending eternity in hell for murder and suicide with no help from teachers or students and no hope of change, he will unlikely be deterred by prison or any form of punishment. If he views society as not working even attempting to help him, there isn’t much of an incentive to respect law.

It may be irrational, but it’s based off of the gut desire for vengeance. People aren’t robots or machines. When they hear about some heinous crime committed, they want the perpetrator to suffer on a visceral level. A logic or rationality-based approach (“let’s rehabilitate through therapy”) doesn’t elicit the satisfaction as (“let’s lock him up and make him suffer for 30 years.”)

It’s my understanding that the US recidivism rate is a lot higher than certain other western countries (such as Norway). I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this, but some of them might include how convicted criminals are treated, and what efforts are made to rehabilitate them. I think we can do a better job rehabilitating criminals then we already do (which, based on the cited rate of 76% recidivism, is pretty awful), which would hopefully save money as released convicts become productive citizens rather than continuing burdens on the social welfare and justice systems.

What’s irrational is thinking that the only reasons for locking up criminals are punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

While criminals are incarcerated, they are not out in society committing crimes.

Lots of people think this is a good thing.

For rational actors, deterrence is based on the decision that the opportunity costs of a given course of action outweigh the expected benefits.

I want money, so I decide to rob a liquor store. I see an armed policeman standing in front of the store. I am deterred from robbing that store - the money I get is not worth possibly getting shot.

Making something illegal raises the opportunity cost of doing it. That’s why alcohol is much more common than cocaine - alcohol is legal and easily available, while using or selling cocaine might get you arrested. Cocaine isn’t eradicated, but it is very much less common than alcohol.

That’s for rational actors. Suicide is less based on deterrence because there is no opportunity cost to be borne - suicides believe they have nothing to lose, and that everyone would be better off without them. Belief in an afterlife is one of the few ways to affect this - that’s why in the Middle Ages suicides could not be buried in sacred ground.


The incarceration rate in the US is the highest in the world - higher than that of Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan… all put together.

The incarceration rate in the US is several times higher than that of any other developed country in the world

This suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the US justice system.

As somebody who worked in the business, I can say the OP is wrong about rehabilitation. There are huge efforts made towards rehabilitation in the American prison system (and in the legal system in general). We’re constantly trying out new ideas.

And America is not a backwards country on this subject. Most ideas for rehabilitation are developed in America. And that’s been true for a couple of hundred years. (When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831, his mission was to study what was regarded as the most advanced prison system in the world so its ideas could be used to reform French prisons.)

The problem is that even after a couple hundred years of trying, we haven’t been able to develop a rehabilitation program that works. At least not in the sense that you can put somebody who breaks laws into it and have them come out a person who doesn’t break laws. The reality is you can’t rehabilitate a criminal; all you can do is offer the criminal opportunities and assistance in rehabilitating himself. And if he’s not interested in changing, you can’t change him.

I think you have the tail wagging the dog. Prisons don’t produce crime just as hospitals don’t produce disease. It’s the prevalence of crime or disease that leads to the building of prisons or hospitals.

We shouldn’t be asking why America locks up so many criminals. We should be asking why America produces so many criminals.

This might be a factor, but I’ve observed a different one that I think is stronger. I have a friend who maintains an ongoing sense of being the victim of repeated and nearly-perpetual injustice. She expresses this as “It’s not fair that all these other people get away with behaviors that; when I do them, I am castigated and accused and made to feel guilty”.

• There is the belief that there are supposed to be “rules”. This is not a belief that the rules themselves are fundamentally right, but merely that they exist and that we’re all supposed to play according to them.

• There is an acceptance of punishment being doled out for violation of those rules, and once again this is entirely independent of any assessment that the violative act it itself wrongful, sinful, immoral, despicable, or socially inappropriate for any reason other than it being a violation of the rules. But it damn well better be doled out fairly.

• There is at least an implicit attitude that many (if not all) of the behaviors that would be violations of the rules are things that would be self-serving or fun or otherwise of benefit to the person who behaved that way, hence the assertion that people who have acted in that fashion but did not get punished for it are getting away with their behavior. And again the anger is towards the lack of fairness, not a resentment that bad immortal despicable destructive etc behaviors went unchecked.
We get into a lot of arguments, she and I, because I think this is a self-destructive attitude to hold. I think one should do what one thinks is right, in general; that one should do what is right regardless of the imposed or other social consequences if what is right is also of sufficient importance; and that one should trust to the universe and its natural laws of cause and effect to generate ultimate outcomes and never worry about unchecked wrongdoing, outside of expressing one’s own disapproval as need be. And that would be disapproval of the behavior itself, not disapproval of “unfairness”.

But aside from her tendency to hold it towards the full range of social interactive behavior, her attitude isn’t unusual. It’s a very common attitude towards crime and punishment.

Maybe because America hands out unduly severe sentences for minor drug offenses? Maybe because of the disgusting plea bargaining system?

Or are you suggesting that America is just a criminal nation?

Or perhaps you think that America suddenly become a criminal nation in the 1980s, when the incarceration rate started to skyrocket?

Then why is our recidivism rate so much higher than many other countries?

Ir was not sudden but America did become a more criminal nation. In 1960 there were 288,460 violent crimes, in 1970 there were 738,820 violent crimes, in 1980 there were 1,344,520, and in 1990 there were 1,820,130. That means that more people are going to go to prison and that society is going to be harsher with the criminals that are caught.

Those are the reasons most often cited for continuing to form our (US) prison system the way it is.

They are instead in a facility that seems perfectly designed to convert nonviolent offenders into vulnerable - unemployable, psychologically harmed, in contact with criminal elements, desperate, etc - high risk citizens who often become dependent on systems we as a society generally want people not to depend on.

I think the OP was getting at this conclusion when he said “irrational.”

Our prison system doesn’t reform diddly, it makes minor “criminals” (I don’t give 2 #*$& what a consenting adult wants to put into his body and hardly consider that some grievous breach of the social contract that warrants his utter destruction as an otherwise functional member of society) into serious societal problems. Recidivism is absurdly high, and our “war on drugs” is more of a “war on minority families” with all of the economic ills that causes - single mothers on welfare, gang culture, etc.

Prison works for terrorists, serial killers, and grievous offenders. Drug users? Petty thieves? Not so much. Quite the opposite, in fact.

You do realize that crime rates, including violent crimes, have declined steeply since the 90s? See Wikipedia. Locking more people up seems to be working well.

When I started in the game, we had around 48k prisoners on the inside - that was seen as a crisis and more prisons had to e built in a hurry because of overcrowding

20 years later and after our policymakers have adopted US programs, our population is now 90 thousand.

Clearly those US programs simply do not work, period

What has changed, well believe it or not, our violent crime has fallen, crime in general has fallen, but sentencing has gone up, recall rates for criminals on their licenced release have gone up.

In the meantime violence in prisons has skyrocketed in the last three years, deaths in UK prisons have gone up dramatically, and the increase coincides exactly with the austerity measures imposed by this government that reduced front line staff by one third. I suppose its lazy of me, but if you look at the UK prisons crisis and rise in violence on Google then you will get many hits. Ultimately these prisoners will be released, somehow I doubt their time in prison will contribute in any way to rehabilitation.

You might imagine that the US had no input on such problems, well not quite, because you see the UK public sector has been compared in costs to the private prison sector for years, and of course those private prisons are US based companies such as Wackenhut - the staffing levels and pay rates in those prisons are very much lower than UK Public sector prisons.

The result was that UK prisons have had massive budget cuts.

I will also add another thing, UK prisons of all sectors are audited and scored , then placed in a rank system, it turns out that every single privately operated prison is in the bottom quartile of prison performance in the whole of the UK.

So - GO neo-liberalisation and GO US globalisation

UK politicians and policy makers seem to prefer to go to the US, after all they speak a form of English there and it is little effort to understand their hosts.

That’s really a pity, because if they would get out of the lazy English disease of insisting everybody else speaks English, and maybe pick up a smattering of Dutch or Norwegian, perhaps the would learn something useful

And this shiny rock I have keeps elephants away.

Crime statistics trailing off in the 90s reminds me of this.

It’s probably worth pointing out here that non-violent drug offenders are a rather small minority of our prison population.