Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1256:
LOCK 'EM UP!

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1256.

Today, we ask how to reduce crime. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Serious crime doubled in the 1960s and '70s, then it leveled off after 1980. Since 1980, the number of people in jails has tripled while crime rates have been fairly steady. One American male in thirty is presently in jail or under some form of correctional supervision. We're putting more and more money into a system that isn't affecting crime one way or the other.

Now Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi analyze the data to see what we might do to control crime. They find most crimes are committed by people in their mid-to-late teen years. After that, criminal activity drops off steadily. They also find few specialized criminals. Crimes like theft, drug use, drunk driving, murder, and assault are usually crimes of opportunity, largely done by the same people: teens with low self-control.

These teens typically show low self-esteem and little interest in long-term goals -- whether it's the goal of an education or of a carefully planned crime. Most teenage crime is for instant gratification. That's why, if you want to protect your home, your best bet isn't to make break-ins impossible. Instead, put your effort into making robbery inconvenient for the kid acting on an impulse.

Crime rates have stayed high since 1980, but then quit rising because the baby boom left its teens. What has increased is the rhetoric surrounding crime. The perception that crime is rising has been fueled by the media, and by politicians who use crime to win votes.

Gottfredson and Hirschi write eight rules for controlling crime. The rules say things like: Don't try to control crime by jailing teens into adulthood, far beyond the age of maximum risk. Long jail terms don't deter people who only think in the short term. They simply eat up public resources. Don't expect jails to achieve rehabilitation. Aging rehabilitates criminals a lot faster than jails do.

The place where crime can be controlled, they insist, is in programs aimed at restricting unsupervised teenage activity, and in programs of early education and effective childcare. They strongly recommend using our money to increase the number of caregivers relative to the numbers of children.

Our efforts to control crime are too closely tied to our emotions. Those of us who've been violated by crime or seen loved ones violated want to swing an axe or embrace a slogan. It's very unsatisfying to see crime control reduced to a slow, careful, empirical science -- reduced to the painstaking labor of redeeming teenagers.

So we go on wasting our means and wasting our young -- waiting 'til the damage is done. Playing on victims' emotions only sets the stage for creating new victims. All we'll do is lose our children and then go bankrupt as well, if our only answer is to put messed-up teenagers out of sight -- for what's left of their lives.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gottfredson, M. R., and Hirschi, T., National Crime Control Policies. Society, January/February 1995, pp. 22-28.

My thanks to Roger Eichhorn, UH Mechanical Engineering Department, for suggesting the topic and providing the source. I quote Gottfredson and Hirschi's eight rules for controlling crime below. (I also include a short paraphrase of the rationale for each one.)

  1. Do not attempt to control crime by incapacitating adults. (Such policies inevitably incarcerate people after they are beyond the age of maximum participation in crime.)

  2. Do not attempt to control the crime rate by rehabilitating adults. (Time "cures" offenders faster than is possible through the best efforts of dedicated correctional workers.)

  3. Do not attempt to control crime by altering the severity of penalties available to the criminal justice system. (Deterrence is a fashionable idea, and it may be effective if it is immediate, but long-term punishment doesn't work with people low in self-control.)

  4. Restrict the unsupervised activities of teenagers. (There is a difference between crime and criminality. Effective crime control will protect teenagers from access to guns, alcohol, unwatched portable consumer goods, etc.)

  5. Limit proactive policing. (Programs like big sting operations or busts create some crimes and prevent or cure none.)

  6. Question the characterization of crime offered by agents of the criminal justice system and uncritically repeated by the media. (The criminal justice system is not well-informed by hard data. It is embedded in politics and bureaucracy.)

  7. Support programs designed to provide early education and effective child care. (Programs that specifically teach self-control should be especially encouraged.)

  8. Support policies that promote and facilitate two-parent families and that increase the number of caregivers relative to the number of children.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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