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When Brute Force Fails: Strategic Thinking for Crime Control

NCJ Number
Date Published
March 2005
173 pages
This study proposes a cost-effective crime-control strategy.
If potential offenders manage their behaviors according to a selfish rationality, their decision about whether or not to violate the law would be based on an assessment of whether the personal benefits to be gained from a crime outweigh the risk of experiencing the adverse consequences of being arrested and punished by a vigilant and effective criminal justice system. Perceptions that the risk of being detected, arrested, and punished is low will tend to produce an increased crime rate. As more offenses are addressed by finite criminal justice resources, the risk of detection and punishment declines even further, fueling more crime. This suggests the importance of concentrating enforcement resources by offense, offender, and time and place, as well as the direct communication of deterrent threats. Examples of this strategy are "broken windows" policing that focuses on overt signs of disorder, "cease-fire" strategies of gang interventions, and the "coerced abstinence" (testing-and sanctions) approach to controlling illicit drug use among probationers. These approaches involve targeted zero tolerance for certain crimes, with a clear communication of the offenses that will not be tolerated. Studies have shown that this strategy outperforms an attempt to spread finite criminal justice resources equally over all offenses and all types of offenders. Research has shown that the swiftness and certainty of punishment are more important in deterring crime than severity of punishment. This suggests that targeted zero tolerance combined with the effective communication of enforcement threats is a better use of resources than increasing the harshness of penalties, which typically means more costly incarceration trends. Chapter references and a 90-item bibliography

Date Published: March 1, 2005