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Let the Punishment Fit the Crime, Identity Theft Edition

With the the recent Equifax data theft fiasco, I thought of a post I wrote 10 years ago:

Based on a conversation I had with reader Debbie, I was thinking about identity theft for the last day or so. I also had a discussion with the Ex-GF (for new readers, that’s my wife) about this; she was the victim of identity theft at one point. Its a big deal in this society, and I think I have a potential solution…
If someone steals someone else’s identity, their intention is to benefit from the reputation and credit rating and so forth that derive from the way their victim has conducted him/herself. Perhaps then they should also be required to, well, suffer the consequences for the way their victim conducted him/herself.

For example… the Ex-GF had a big pile of student loans at the time her identity was stolen. Why not make the thief responsible for paying those loans – not directly, of course… perhaps the thief would have to send the Ex-GF in the amount of the payment due every month. Alternatively, the thief would have to send the government an amount equal to that payment every month to compensate society for the losses of that identity theft; the government could then reduce the tax burden on everyone else by the same amount.

Similarly, if the victim of identity theft was proven to be the perpetrator of some crime, such as homicide, the person committing the identity theft could be required to serve part of the time, or perhaps a concurrent sentence.

Such a structure would would add some serious disincentive to those considering committing identity theft. Such a disincentive is really needed… the Ex-GF was able to quickly determine who had stolen her identity, and provided all the necessary evidence to the police. However, because the amount stolen was small, the police declined to do anything. But the time and effort she went through to fix the problem was pretty substantial.

Ten years later, I would kill the paragraph that begins with “For example…” I would also modify the second to last paragraph to read:

If the victim of identity theft was proven to be the perpetrator of some crime, such as homicide, the person committing the identity theft would be required to serve an identical sentence. Ditto those who steal the data in the first place.

Otherwise, I agree with myself.

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Crime and Punishment

I stumbled on a blog post by Jerry Ratcliffe, who is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Security and Crime Science at Temple University, Philadelphia, and a former police officer with London’s Metropolitan Police (UK).

From one of this posts:

Graph no. 2 is another image from my Intelligence-Led Policing book. The crime funnel represents what happens to a random selection of 1,000 crimes that affect the public (top bar). It shows the loss of cases through the criminal justice system. These are British national data derived from public records, but the comparisons to the U.S. are very similar. If you take a random selection of 1,000 crimes actually suffered by the public (violence, robbery, vehicle theft, residential burglary, theft and criminal damage) you can see that they only report 530 to the police, who in turn record just 43 percent of the original total.

Click to embiggenize.

Of these 429 events, 99 are detected (solved or cleared in some way) and of these, 60 end up with a day in court. The majority of those are found guilty or plead the same, but in the end only four of the events from the original 1,000 end up in a custodial sentence for the offender. This is an incarceration rate of 0.4% based on crime suffered by the community.

The main point here is that impacting higher in the crime funnel will be more effective because it affects the numbers below and affects a larger number of actual cases. Improving the detection rate will have an impact on prosecutions, pleas and incarceration, but only to a minimal level. Being prevention focused and changing the higher numbers is much more impactful. Consider if you could have a 10% change on one level. Where would it be most effective?

I don’t know how accurate the figures above are, but I assume the numbers are about as reasonable as the law enforcement community can provide.  I’m not sure “an incarceration rate of 0.4% based on crime suffered by the community” is all that much of a deterrent, except insofar as crimes, apparently are just like potato chips – people who engage in crimes generally don’t stop at one.  Most delinquents commit multiple crimes and eventually get snagged for something.  But meanwhile, a whole of of people suffer a whole of outrage.

As to Ratcliffe’s question…  I suspect what Ratclife is getting at is what the current esteemed leadership in Baltimore considers heavy handed policing. And I bet his 0.4% figure is a whole lot lower for Baltimore these days too.

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