If I Love the Legal System So Much, Why Don’t I Marry It?

As a consultant, my job is simple: increase mean, decrease variance. In order to do this, I need to have some expertise in how the criminal justice system (CJS) works. I think the best way to understand the CJS is to break the system up into critical component parts. Each component part involves interactions between agents, and each agent has goals. Using court data, we can refine and parameterize our agent models until we have a predictive service to offer our clients. Many of the conclusions of this type of analysis are surprising – for example, the finding that judges are better adjudicators than most people believe. I frequently point out that the CJS today doesn’t seem wildly different from the CJS most reformers pine for.

This should not be construed to mean I think the CJS is optimal. Rather, I think judges and prosecutors behave basically like the types of agents you would want in an optimal CJS. The real problem isn’t with the adjudicators, it’s with the arresting authorities and the laws. The arresting authorities have an easy enough fix in principle; we could just tie their pay to their successful prosecution rate (or any derivative of this plan). Would this fix magically give us an optimal CJS? No, but it would likely help fight the pervasive over-arresting of blacks by police. The more fundamental problem is the law generally. The optimal CJS is that which maximizes aggregate utility; by backward induction the optimal set of laws is that which maximizes aggregate utility.

I submit that the current set of laws is nowhere close to the utility maximizing set. While I think many laws are undesirable and should be repealed, the worst feature of our legal regime seems to be the given penalties for breaking most laws. We all know long prison sentences are overrated; the wise Alex Tabarrok prefers this alternative (do read his entire post):

I favor more police on the street to make punishment more quick, clear, and consistent. I would be much happier with more police on the street, however, if that policy was combined with an end to the “war on drugs”, shorter sentences, and an end to brutal post-prison policies that exclude millions of citizens from voting, housing, and jobs.

I suspect such a policy regime would move us unambiguously closer to the optimal regime (i.e. more deterrence and more utility), but it neglects the problem of police behavior. Presumably, the social costs would still be born disproportionately by populations of color.


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