Paying Criminals Not to Get Caught?

At the US Open in 1925, golfer Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself, a penalty that no one saw. That one stroke caused him to lose the tournament.  When people began to praise him for his actions he replied, “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”  I was reminded of this quote when hearing that Washington D.C. had approved a program to reward people who are at risk of committing some violent crime, with stipends of up to $9000 per year. This effort is akin to nursing the wounded on the battlefield without attending to the cause of the war.  While the wounded have to be attended to, it will be a never-ending job unless something is done to stop the actions that cause the wounds.

While I am reluctant to criticize the D.C. program (and the one they modeled it after in Richmond, California) because the people involved in these programs are trying to do something about crime in their cities, it troubles me that D.C. is adopting a program that even the people involved (in the Richmond program), are reluctant to call a success.  I worry that a program with such great intent will not be effective (scientifically) because it does not have, as far as I know, the science of behavior as its foundation. Those who understand the science of behavior and how to apply it would be in a better position to build a program that delivered more than what was hoped, and with largely positive outcomes.  It is government (I mean the people’s) money after all. I see a few problems with these programs.

  1. What are the criteria they will use to identify these individuals? They state that the program is directed at those “who pose a high risk of participating in, or being a victim of, violent criminal activity.” That’s a pretty broad spectrum, and there are only 50 individuals selected each year. Since many crimes are never solved, how do they know the participants don’t commit a crime?  Maybe they are paying them for not getting caught.  Possible?
  2. What is actually getting rewarded? And, for those who haven’t yet committed a crime, how do you reward a behavior that hasn’t happened?
  3. What crime or behavior will others have to commit to get into the program? In working with delinquents years ago, we discovered that the students knew what behavior got suspension and what got expulsion so their behavior was only bad enough to get suspended.  If they could prove they were under suspension, the police could not bother them.  Otherwise they were put into detention.

How will this program change the environment that produces criminal behavior? When the high-risk participant are “fixed,” and have to return to the same environment where their bad behavior was reinforced, if nothing has changed, the probability is that they will resume criminal behavior. As I say, although I am reluctant to criticize the actions of the people who are trying to impact crime and the lives of the participants, I am skeptical of their success.  I think the mentorship programs are likely to be more effective than the money.  Mentors have a better chance of being in a position to reinforce behavior that is incompatible with criminal activity and more likely to reinforce good citizenship behaviors that will be to everyone’s benefit over the long term. People learn from their environment and until the environment in which these people live is changed, a new crop of criminals will be produced every year.

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Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.