Several American cities have tried or plan to try a program to pay criminals not to commit crimes. Richmond CA was one of the originators, where typical payments are a relatively modest $9,000 per year. Washington DC is considering a similar program. Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have tried these programs with mixed success over the last two decades. Of course there is more to this than just simple bribery. Recipients also are expected to participate in rehabilitation programs. Still, at the root, bribery is exactly the motivating technique.
These experiments haven’t been in place long enough to evaluate them properly, but there is a case in point from 1600 years ago to guide us. The Romans tried paying off the Visigoths to persuade them not to sack their cities. Sometimes it worked, or at least the payments satisfied their enemies for a while. Eventually, however, the Visigoths realized they could have their cake and eat it, so to speak, and thus Rome fell.
The longest lasting program, in Richmond, came about from an astonishing discovery. In 2009, 70% of their deluge of homicides and firearm-related assaults were believed to have been committed by just 17 people. The authorities thought, what if they could just buy them off before they committed their crimes? It isn’t that hard to identify likely candidates, who typically are gang members with long rap sheets. But if you are going to commit a serious crime – bribery – to reduce the threat of other crimes, my impulse would be to go all the way. What if they just assassinated their bribery targets? It would probably cost less and would definitely be more certain.
Could this work with ISIS? It is frequently asserted by sympathizers that many young Europeans and no doubt some American youth are drawn to ISIS partly because they see no path to a fruitful life. Few and mostly dead-end jobs, deteriorating neighborhoods and an unfriendly society push these disaffected youth into accepting the siren call of ISIS. For the subset for whom idealism is not the prime motivator, why wouldn’t a big payoff succeed in persuading them that there is an easier and safer route to happiness? If this were in the form of regular payments which must be picked up in person, the incentive to stay would be quite high, don’t you think?
Perhaps we might somewhat alleviate our problem of burgeoning prison costs by just releasing selected criminals and putting them on the dole. Murderers with a death sentence would be prime candidates because of the horrendous cost of our time-consuming and often fruitless attempts to off them.
Hey, what about paying members of Congress to resign and desist their criminal enterprise? There seems to be no end to the possibilities of buying our way out of trouble, and many would likely produce a net financial gain. Initially I was skeptical of this crime management approach, but I am beginning to warm to it now that I see the potential.