Crime Shouldn’t Pay, but Requiring Reimbursement May Not Pay Off

Harsher penalties are not as effective at deterring crime as increasing the risk of getting caught

A law that takes effect next month adds a handful of new crimes to the list of offenses for which violators must reimburse the state or a local unit of government for expenses incurred responding to and prosecuting the crime. Such crimes as drunk driving and violating a restraining order have carried this requirement and now retail fraud, dealing in stolen goods and failure to appear in court will, too.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, the bill’s sponsor, issued a press release that said the law was created in response to rising rates of retail fraud at The Lakes Mall in Muskegon. It said also, “This law is a further deterrent to crime and will save money by reducing costs to the state and to local units of government.”

Requiring people who commit crimes of theft to make their victims whole makes sense. But allowing government agencies to recoup their costs from criminal defendants is a bad idea, and it might not even accomplish Hansen’s goal of deterring crime.

Although criminology is an imprecise science, the findings tend to conclude that the probability of getting caught is a better deterrent than the threat of a more severe punishment. This is one reason why the modern criminal justice reform movement has urged lawmakers to move away from “tough on crime” policies like mandatory minimum sentences.

And anecdotes seem to support the research: In Michigan, the prison population appears to fluctuate independently of the crime rate, suggesting that imposing long sentences didn’t have the desired effect on crime. Now prisons are full of people serving long sentences, and although crime is steadily decreasing, Michigan corrections spending has plateaued at about $2 billion.

In keeping with research on the best deterrents, one clearly effective solution is increasing police presence in high-crime areas — not to pursue an aggressive, high-arrest crackdown on “bad” neighborhoods, but to discourage the kind of criminality that would necessitate arrests in the first place.

Policymakers should reconsider the idea of sticking criminal offenders with the bill for the costs associated with their arrest, trial and incarceration. For one thing, it creates perverse incentives for law enforcement officers when they know that when they arrest someone for certain types of crimes, they generate revenue for their employer. And these types of administrative expenses disproportionately effect low-income offenders, making their full rehabilitation and a successful reintegration into society more difficult.