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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Policing Part 3: Some Unoriginal Thoughts on Cost-Benefit Analysis

I hadn’t intended to start an extended debate about policing on this blog; the area isn’t even particularly within my expertise. But the very interesting discussion sparked so far, along with a story that I just saw and an experience I just had, have inspired yet a third (and hopefully a final) post on the subject. It’s a call for more open talk about the costs even of effective law enforcement, and has some remarks about race and class as well as about Singapore, below the fold. Nothing in here is terribly original (not within my expertise, remember?), but these are things we need to be talking about right now, in the context of the Brown and Garner killings and the NYPD slowdown. So consider this an attempt to steer the conversation toward territory well trod by others.

First the story. The Guardian just wrote a sort of urban profile of Singapore, focusing on the way that its extreme public order policies (chewing gum banned to keep it from littering places, etc.) underpin its low crime, prosperity, etc. This matches my very slight experience of the country—a few years ago, I was sent by a nerd camp program to teach a very short (days, not weeks) political science intensive to some middle-schoolers, and my impression of the country was one of almost overwhelming sterility. Much of the city was a giant underground shopping mall, everything was very, very clean, but very, very intimidating. I spent the entire time terrified that I’d teach the kids something a little too liberal, or thoughtlessly spit on the street or something and get arrested. This attitude of fear appears to me to be deliberately cultivated by the state. The first greeting I got from the Singaporean government was its infamous immigration form, which announced “death for drug traffickers.” Ghastly.

Second, the experience. Yesterday afternoon, I defended myself in a traffic ticket trial in Princeton municipal court. (It was a quixotic attempt to get the court to read a mens rea requirement into a crosswalk law. I lost. I may appeal.) As happens in municipal courts where almost nobody tries anything, I sat there for hours while the court ran through its entire docket of first appearances and warrants before getting to me. The most astonishing case up before mine was that of an early 20’s-appearing, neatly but not expensively dressed, Black man. He’d been picked up on an arrest warrant for a three-year old fine of about $600; since it was three years old, I imagine it was probably originally a much smaller amount and for something pretty minor, before the fees that get added when one misses a fine. He claimed that he’d simply not realized the fine was due, and that as he was a temp worker with inconsistent income, he couldn’t pay anything on the spot. However, he had just gotten an assignment, and would get his first paycheck in two weeks. Accordingly, he was confident he could handle a $100 month payment plan, beginning with the first payment in two weeks with his first paycheck. The judge accepted his payment plan, but scheduled his first payment not for two weeks from the date, but for the very next day, on pain of another arrest warrant. There was no evidence introduced about his ability to pay other than his own testimony, which seemed honest and believable to me; he seemed like a good guy and a straight shooter.

What the Singapore story leads me to think is this: let us suppose arguendo that things like the “broken windows” policies work, that aggressive enforcement of laws that I would consider petty really does make life better in a lot of ways—cleaner streets, and maybe even less serious crime. At what point is the marginal gain in things like cleaner streets and less crime outweighed by the marginal cost in things like conformity and fear? It seems pretty clear to me that Singapore has gone too far in one direction. New York obviously isn’t Singapore, but has it, too, gone too far? How would we tell?

What observing the guy picked up for the overdue fine leads me to think is this: what about the economic and social cost of broken windows-type policing (scholarly ref 1, scholarly ref 2, District Court opinion from last year finding racial bias in New York City stop and frisk practices; all three references just skimmed, no full endorsement intended)? And who pays that cost? The answer to the second question is obvious: people of color, who are profiled, and poor people, who have their lives disrupted by the costs that those of us with more money can easily absorb. And while the racial disparity is a product of our own disgusting racial politics and history, the class disparity is, I would suggest, almost a structural necessity—the rich have more access to private spaces to carry out acts that are punished in public but de jure or de facto decriminalized in private (or just hard to enforce behind walls); the very poor lack even the spaces to carry out basic acts that are de jure legal in private but criminal in public like drinking and urinating.

My crosswalk fine won’t disrupt my life. but what will happen to the young man who was ordered to pay today money he won’t have until two weeks from now? A temp worker who cannot come up with a hundred uncommitted dollars on demand is on the economic knife-edge, and so the judge’s order could easily cause extreme collateral damage. He might not pay it, in which case he’ll be under yet another arrest warrant, and could easily get hit with more fines, or get picked up again and this time lose a job because of the jail time. Alternatively, he could take unaffordable measures to pay for it. He could take out a payday loan, perhaps, rolling it over repeatedly and ultimately paying hundreds more dollars to the lender. He could skimp on rent, and risk getting evicted. He could skimp on car repairs or a car payment, and risk losing employment because of inadequate transportation. The point being that for the poor, being subject to a fine backed up with the power of the state in the hands of a compassionless judge can lead to massive collateral consequences. And criminal justice policies that subject everyone to a greatly increased risk of petty fines put those without the cushion to absorb those fines at risk of greatly magnified economic impact. This, too, is something that needs to be taken into account in any cost-benefit analysis of petty policing policy: how much crime reduction is needed to justify putting people into increasingly precarious economic positions this way?

Even if you think (as the unempathetic judge evidently did, and as I do not) that the man before the court was to rightly blame for not knowing about the fine, or for not having budgeted to pay it, these consequences go beyond the individual. As a society, is a little bit of public order worth having some of our members in more precarious economic positions? Poverty does not hurt only the poor.

Posted by Paul Gowder on January 6, 2015 at 09:30 AM in Criminal Law, Current Affairs | Permalink


I dissent from your conclusion that only the well-off benefit from aggressive policing. The well-off, particularly in New York, live in gated communities. No one loiters in the lobby of a doorman building with intent to sell narcotics or to mug someone because there's a doorman keeping the riff-raff out. The NYPD's exercise of stop + frisk and broken windows policing in public housing and other poor communities provides the residents with the order and security that the affluent get from their doormen. Now it is true that the poor also pay a price for those policies that the affluent don't pay. But it's wrong to say that the benefits only flow to the affluent.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Jan 8, 2015 4:23:28 PM

Hah, don't even get me started on Palo Alto parking tickets. I once managed to win on a due process defense vs one...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 8, 2015 11:28:19 AM

Of course, that's easily verifiable (and probably false) - but I do think they are one of the more cash flow positive operations.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jan 8, 2015 11:17:09 AM

It's long been suspected that Palo Alto's primary revenue source is parking tickets...

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jan 8, 2015 11:16:04 AM

That's great! I particularly like the points with respect to shutting down little municipalities. It's nuts that municipalities with fewer than a thousand people are allowed to operate traffic courts as cash-making devices.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 8, 2015 8:42:28 AM

Have you seen this?

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jan 8, 2015 8:31:05 AM

Paul, I enjoyed our discussion. I found you to be genuine. I didn't like being called a troll simply because I was anonymous and I was a little partisan. Keep up your analysis. I hope we get to debate issues soon. Best of luck.

Posted by: Lucy | Jan 7, 2015 11:39:22 PM

Orin, this is a stretch, particularly given what we know of places like Ferguson,
where the courts quite deliberately f*ck people over to raise more money.

"First the story. The Guardian just wrote a sort of urban profile of Singapore, focusing on the way that its extreme public order policies (chewing gum banned to keep it from littering places, etc.) underpin its low crime, prosperity, etc. "

Um, did they back that up? Remember, Singapore is a city-state, where much of the labor force lives in another country, and has to 'immigrate' every day. For an analogy, if NYC could arrange to have it's poorer and more problematic neighborhoods put in NJ, *and* exert massive control over who comes in from those neighborhoods, I imagine that crime would be much lower. It'd be more prosperous, as well, since that counts residents only, I imagine.

And, of course, that assumes that a one-party states's statistics are trustworthy.

Posted by: Barry | Jan 6, 2015 3:13:22 PM

Paul, you may be right, but it's not obvious to me that we know what the judge knew. The judge presumably would have known at least something beyond what was presented orally in court, whether it is the basis of the fine, the person's criminal history, a file on the guy, etc.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 6, 2015 1:46:29 PM

Orin: true, but neither did the judge. There was nothing presented in court to controvert his claim that he couldn't come up with the money today...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jan 6, 2015 12:00:44 PM

Paul writes: "There was no evidence introduced about his ability to pay other than his own testimony, which seemed honest and believable to me; he seemed like a good guy and a straight shooter."

Although I take your broader point, and I think it's an important one, I'm not sure this specific case is a good example of it; it sounds like you don't know anything about this particular person beyond your intuition that he "seemed like a good guy" and therefore should be trusted.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 6, 2015 11:49:12 AM

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