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What stops crime? Offenders more scared of their mom than the police


(The Center Square) — As Philadelphia and Pittsburgh see a drop in murders, public safety and crime remain high priorities across the state. To make communities safer, legislators want to figure out best practices for punishing crime and deploying policing.

The House Judiciary Committee met on Wednesday and heard from testifiers that deterring crime comes down to the certainty of punishment, not the severity.

“Potential criminals don’t know what the sentences are,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “They never think of it; it is not within their thought process. Lots of crimes are committed as crimes of opportunity.”

He cautioned against more mandatory minimums as deterrence.

“What does work is increasing the risk of getting caught,” Harris said. “If you can up the risk that the potential criminal will be caught, it doesn’t matter how long the sentence is — that’s what they care about. They really care about whether they’ll be caught.”

Leaving criminals in prison for too long, he noted, may backfire: criminals can learn from each other in prison and become better criminals after they’re released.

“What kind of action will deter?” Harris said. “Have a police presence.”

Instead of spending too much taxpayer money on imprisonment, Harris argued for deterrence efforts to focus on hotspot policing, where police departments notice trends in crime data and work with high-crime communities to prevent crime.

Leah Sakala, state policy manager at the Alliance for Safety and Justice, argued officials need to think beyond policing to reduce violence.

“Violence comes from trauma, lack of opportunity, insufficient systems of care, and inadequate response to crisis,” she said. “Focusing on only punishment doesn’t address any of those problems and can make them worse.”

Instead, Sakala said violence prevention, opportunities for healing, and rehabilitation that create pathways away from the criminal justice system help.

“We have to offer people who are in the criminal justice system meaningful pathways to get out of it and stay out of it,” Sakala said.

Officials emphasized that prison is not always a long-term solution, especially when mental health issues are apparent.

“If we are simply sending these individuals to jail, we’re kicking the can for somebody else to deal with,” said Mike O’Donnell, the district attorney of Northumberland County.

He argued that without connecting criminals to their social networks and giving them a solid footing, the same people will return to prison again and again without making the community better.

Bret Bucklen, the research director of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, noted that punishment must be certain, swift, meaningful, and fairly administered to be an effective deterrent. Focusing on high-risk offenders, too, is a better use of resources.

Beyond formal punishments, disapproval from family and friends of criminality might matter more.

“Offenders are more scared of their mom than they are of the police,” Bucklen said. “Those things bear out in the research and matter more than sanctions like arrests or corrections.”