Defunding police conflicts with prison reform
June 24, 2021
Efforts by progressives to defund police are likely to backfire because those same groups also seek to reform the criminal justice system—particularly as it relates to reducing prison populations.
Unsurprisingly, the issue comes down to incentives and the assessment of risk and reward.
There are two ways to reduce prison populations. One way is simply to reduce the number of prosecutions or reduce the penalties for criminal convictions. Sentences in Oklahoma are higher than average in the United States, so there is certainly room to right-size sentences in our state.
But there is another way to reduce incarceration; reduce crime rates. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood elements of criminal justice policy is that of deterrence—how we incentivize people to not commit crimes.
Research suggests the fear of being caught in criminal activity is a much stronger deterrent to committing crimes than the severity of the punishment once a person is charged and convicted. In some ways this doesn’t seem to make sense. How could the threat of a longer sentence not deter someone from engaging in criminal behavior? But it also makes perfect sense. I remain skeptical that those who commit crimes do a significant amount of legal research to determine the cost of their actions. People also tend to focus on the more immediate consequence—in this case being caught as opposed to what might happen upon a conviction down the road.
This isn’t to suggest that more severe sentences have no deterrent effect. The degree to which longer sentences reduce crime remains largely unknown. What we do know is that over a four-decade period where incarceration rates skyrocketed, there was no clear trend in crime rates. They spiked and dipped without any clear indication that the tough-on-crime policies were having a significant deterrent effect. It is clear, however, that the deterrent effect of longer sentences diminishes as the incarceration rate grows. Much like everything, there are diminishing marginal returns from longer sentences.
If the likelihood of being caught is a stronger deterrent than sentence lengths, the best antidote to prison reform is to increase police presence in high-crime neighborhoods while simultaneously advocating more reasonable sentences (or, better yet, alternatives to prison) for those who are caught. Specifically, Oklahoma should look to limit mandatory minimums and required time served requirements—not expand them as some are advocating. Furthermore, Oklahoma should address excessive sentences and fines for drug crimes not covered by SQ 780. Excessive sentences for drug crimes haven’t done anything to lessen drug use. Instead, we should expand and improve drug courts in Oklahoma. The return on investment is much higher with that approach.
Increasing the presence of—rather than defunding—police while also addressing problems in sentencing should be an obvious compromise. But tackling both will require progressives and conservatives to follow the research and give up on some sacred cows.