11 May 2006

Preventing Crime

In ordinary civilian life, government either determines that you haven't violated the law and leaves you alone, or finds that you have violated the law, and arrests you and frequently charges you with a crime. The upside of this is that it respects civil liberties, you are free so long as you don't break the law. The downside of this is that nobody takes action until the damage is done.

People who see the world in black and white have a hard time understanding that there can be middle ground. But, there is room for middle ground.

The U.S. Navy is one example. They have recently adopted a policy of designating petty officers to serve as "Shipmates" whose job is to encourage drunk sailors on the path to trouble to call it a night and to find them a ride back to the ship when they are on shore leave. The advice is optional, but if they drunk sailor doesn't listen, the Shipmate may keep an eye on him and call in military law enforcement the moment he crosses the line.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has similarly promoted the social norm of taking the keys of drunk friends before they go out and drive.

Japanese constables, usually stationed in a neighborhood, make it their practice to keep tabs and know personally the people in the neighborhood (a home visit every year to everyone on their beat is customary). And, often this involves warnings to family members that a child is heading for trouble.

And, China, of all places, has long had designated people in neighborhoods, whose job is to warn people that they are heading for trouble (for instance in escalating domestic disputes) before penal punishment is invoked.

The larger American society would do well to try to implement this kind of progressive warning and assistance kind of regime to prevent crime, rather than merely punishing it after it happens. Many people are on predictable paths to crime, and while we shouldn't fine or imprison people until they commit crimes, that doesn't mean that we can't have people targetting those individuals and advocating for them to shape up and avoid trouble before it happens.

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