09 February 2012

How Should the Government Prevent Crimes?

Assuming that the government should be in charge of enforcing laws, and assuming that the only laws on the books concern property crimes (i.e. not the asinine anti-drug or anti-prostitution laws), one necessarily comes to the following question:  what should the government do to prevent crimes?  Answering this question requires, in the first place, an understanding of what is meant by prevention.

There are three ways to prevent crimes:  active prevention, passive prevention, deterrence.  Active prevention consists of attempting to determine who might possibly commit crimes in the future and prevent them from actually happening; a good example of this is found in the movie Minority Report.  Passive prevention occurs when incidentally prevents a criminal from future action; an example of this would be locking up a criminal, for a criminal necessarily cannot commit crimes when detained.  Deterrence occurs when ones actions against criminals discourages others from attempting crime; an example of this would be someone witnessing an execution and then deciding to avoid that fate.

Since it is assumed that the government should prosecute property crimes, the government is duly authorized to deter crimes since prosecution necessarily leads to some level of deterrence.  While harsher punishments appear to correlate to increased deterrence, the causality of this relationship is not known with any degree of certainty.  However, if there is a causal link between deterrence and punishment, then authorize the government to do the former necessarily authorizes the government to do the latter.  As such, the government should certainly attempt deterrence as a means of preventing crimes.

Though it is assumed that the government should prosecute crimes, it does not necessarily follow that the government should engage in passive prevention, since there is nothing inherent to prosecution that demands that the government jail people upon conviction.  The government could, hypothetically, simply fine criminals, instead of jailing them.  However, if one decides to violate the rights of another (i.e. commit a property crime), it can be considered ethical to forfeit the rights of those who ignore the rights of another.*  Assuming that this is the ethical principle governing criminal prosecution, the government may therefore prevent crime passively if it so chooses, since jailing duly convicted criminals implicitly authorizes passive prevention.

Active prevention of crimes, though, is not at all related to the prosecution of crimes.  Active prevention necessarily occurs prior to the crime, whereas prosecution occurs after the occurrence of a crime.  As such, active prevention and prosecution are entirely unrelated since succeeding at one will, by definition, preclude succeeding at the other.

Furthermore, the government should not be authorized to actively prevent crimes, since active prevention requires knowing what a person will do in the future.  This seems like a relatively minor quibble, but the future is not completely knowable (else no plans would ever go wrong), and indicators of the future are imperfect.

Additionally, the most obvious indicator of future behavior is an individual’s intentions, which are not a guarantee of future behavior.  For example, many people occasionally feel like committing a property crime at some point in their life (e.g. wanting to punch someone in the face for embarrassing you at work).  Going strictly by intent would lead to one getting arrested.  Furthermore, since everyone has felt like committing some sort of property crime at some point in their lives, relying solely on intentions to determine the possibility of future crime is tenuous, to say the least, because feeling like doing something and actually acting on that feeling later on are two completely different things.

Furthermore, one does not violate another’s property rights simply by desiring to do so.  For example, I might covet my neighbor’s Corvette, but unless I use it or do something to it without my neighbor’s permission, I have not violated his property rights in any way.

Furthermore, the active prevention of crimes is predicated on the presumption of guilt.  If we are to be consistent with this standard, then every person should be in jail because all of us will at some point in our lives have the motive for a property crime, and the odds are that each one of us will at some point have an opportunity and means to carry out said crimes. Locking everyone up is, of course, impossible, so the only other philosophically consistent stance to take is that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty of violating the law, and therefore it should not be presumed that any given individual will commit a crime, therefore requiring some sort of active interference.

At this point, then, it should be clear that the government will, in carrying out its assumed duties as prosecutor of crime, passively prevent and deter crime.  However, attempting to actively prevent crime leads to a situation wherein people are assumed guilty prior to any wrongful action, and can therefore be deprived of their rights at any time.  As such, the government should refrain from actively preventing crimes, and should only engage in passive prevention and deterrence, and only insofar as doing so is in keeping with the more general authority to prosecute crime.

* Note:  the assertions of the ACLU to the contrary, criminal law rights exist to protect the innocent, not the guilty.  Once one is determined to be guilty of violating the law, his rights are no longer considered in effect because he has presumably violated the rights of another.

2 comments:

  1. I've been the victim of numerous property crimes, none of which were prosecuted as the cops are too busy looking for meth dealers. I favor ending the drug war entirely (on the theory that what people do in their own homes is their own business), which would drop drug-related crime to near zero, and take all those now-idle officers and put them to work on property crime cases.

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  2. @Southern Man- I've often felt the same way too, and would extend the sentiment to include traffic laws as well. There are plenty of property crimes, such that there is no need to use the police to investigate people for not harming someone else.

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