Financial Hazards of the Fugitive Life (*On the Run*)

That is the title of my New York Times Economic View column, also now on The Upshot.  The column covers Alice Goffman’s excellent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.  Here is one excerpt from the column:

You may think of being on the run as a quandary for only a small group of recalcitrant, hardened criminals. But in her study of one Philadelphia neighborhood, Professor Goffman shows that it is a common way of life for many nonviolent Americans. These people often face charges related to possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, or offenses like hiding relatives from the law. Whatever the negative moral implications of such crimes, they don’t merit having one’s life ruined.

A core point of “On the Run” is that “young men’s compromised legal status transforms the basic institutions of work, friendship and family into a net of entrapment.” For instance, the police round up fugitives by monitoring and contacting their relatives — and that frays family relations. A young man might avoid showing up at the hospital to witness the birth of his child because he knows he could be caught or turned in. Family gatherings become another hazard, so in-person appearances are often surprise visits. People stuck in this kind of limbo are also reluctant to visit hospitals when they need treatment, and a result, the book says, is a “lifestyle of secrecy and evasion,” driven by the unfavorable incentives set in motion by the law.

For all the recent talk of a surveillance state created through the National Security Agency, an oppressive low-tech surveillance state has been in place for decades — and it’s been directed at many of America’s poorest people.

There is also this:

As every friend or relative becomes a potential informant, cooperation plummets and life degenerates into a day-to-day struggle to remain outside the reaches of the law. Professor Goffman offers a chilling portrait of tactics used to encourage relatives to turn in possible lawbreakers: For example, the police may tell mothers that if they don’t report their errant men, the authorities will yank their children, a threat that may be backed by a charge of harboring or aiding and abetting a fugitive. “Squealing” thus becomes more likely. A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships.

In large part I blame the war on drugs for these developments, as I explain in the column.

Goffman’s book is superbly researched and extremely well-written and it may well be the best social science book of the year so far.  You can buy it here.  And I didn’t even cover the very best part of On the Run in my column, namely the author’s account of her own personal experiences doing the research, read it carefully.


May we have a link to the column, please?

Whoops, it is here:

if the disincentives are so vast, affecting not only the self but peers and family, why is the possession of small amounts of drugs nonetheless so prevalent?

Because the likelihood of getting caught on any given occasion is very low. The a priori expected legal punishment of drug possession is still small, it's just that a small and basically random subset of people will be caught, and the ex post punishment becomes very bad. It'd be like randomly executing one out of every million jaywalkers. It'd probably do very little to deter jaywalking and cause a great deal of personal suffering.

The best way to dissuade an activity is with very consistent penalties. In the case of drugs that would mean ending the random criminal sanctions and taxing legalized drugs at the point of sale relative to the degree that society chooses.

One of the best comments in a long time. Thanks for this.

I thought random or varying punishments were found to be highly effective

Of course, the USA's forty four year old War on Drugs has been an unqualified success

Of course, the USA's forty four year old 'War on Drugs' has been an unqualified success

One of the worst punishments may be loss of access to drugs. Or at least it probably takes a while to establish the necessary connections in jail.

How can such a large fraction of the population be in prison while the likelihood of getting caught is low? I might be misunderstanding something, but it seems like those two "facts" are incompatible. I get that the likelihood of getting caught this Tuesday is low, but the likelihood of getting caught over a couple of years is not low.

I find it hard to understand this without wondering whether some people's time preference is really messed up.

Because people are not perfectly rational actors, and some are less rational than others. Most of these guys are overconfident in their abilities to avoid detection, and in any event haven't actually thought through the potential consequences of their actions. Also perhaps they don't really care what effects their actions have on friends and family (how Randian!)

Because most "drug possesion" charges aren't about drug possession.

They were pled down from charges of selling drugs or owning illegal guns.

I asked a convict about that. He said that usually those that make the wrong decisions aren't very good at making decisions because they're not that bright. Which stands to reason. The most successful criminals, the once that don't get caught, are generally smarter than the incarcerated unsuccessful ones. Prisons are holding camps for the least intelligent members of society, at least in part.

What drivel. Read an American history book.

I seem to recall that WIlson and Herrnstein in Crime and Human Nature reported a median IQ for criminal samples as 93. It's been a while and I do not know what the sampling frames were of the studies they were referring to; still, that does not seem very different from what you'd see from a randomly selected population of wage-earners.

What economic role are these gentlemen going to fill in the future when you can go to Costco and buy a quarter-kilo of Johnson & Johnson cocaine?

I'm sure we'll figure something out. Maybe breaking down doors making sure people are doing the sex.

Even if none of these men ever receive legitimate employment and all live off government cheese it'd be a vast improvement to the status quo. Criminal organizations funded by drug dealing create massive externalities to the communities that they're embedded in.

I assumed he was referring to the people breaking into the wrong houses (even when they get the address right) and shooting the dog.

Another good reason to support a minimum income?

Robbery, car theft, trafficking stolen goods....

I think the drug war is immoral, but I must admit I do wonder if it hasn't "worked" to some extent. I think that X million men in prison for drug offenses is a travesty, but I do admit I'm concerned that other criminal activity won't just replace drug trafficking should it become legal. Possession offenses might be easier to prove, too (or to plant/trump up), and I suspect a lot of "bad guys" are taken out of circulation this way.

That isn't really "working" though.

What happened to innocent before proven guilty? To me it looks a lot like apartheid 2.0. Have you ever looked at the ridiculous incarceration rates in US?

The correct number in prisons and jails with a drug charge as a top count is not 'x million'. It is about 500,000 if you include those in pre-trial detention.

What if their parents werent in prison or dead due to the war on drugs?

The same roles as those filled today by others who buy cocaine but who have as-of-yet managed to avoid getting caught by law enforcement.

I.e. bankers, homemakers, programmers, street musicians, cops, lawyers, judges, teachers, students, construction workers, retail clerks, politicians, prostitutes (but I repeat myself)... butcher, baker, candlestick maker... pretty much any occupation which doesn't require random drug testing and many of those which do.

I realize now you were talking about dealers, not users.

Both dealers and users run the risk of becoming economically marginalized due to run-ins with the law. Most dealers might well continue lives of crime upon legalization; most users would continue lives of bland, normal, every-day working life but without the risk of falling into the shadowy underworld.

I hate it when he says "read it carefully." He did this for Bleak House and I spent four weeks parsing that book looking for the secret plot twists.

Dickens is rubbish, apart from a Tale of Two Cities. Surely everyone knows that?

Damn - the only Dickens I had to read at Woodson HS was A Tale of Two Cities.

And nobody else has ever seemed to have actually read it, even though according to wikipedia, it has sold more than 200 million copies -

But for those interested in the sounds of knitting, here is a link -

Did we ever really want the war on drugs? Or is the cause and effect backwards?

(They have only ever lied about marijuana for example)

"Conservatives" who saw a way to score points against "liberals" wanted a "War on Drugs," a "War on Crime," a "War on Terror"

When did "war" become the catchall metaphor for any big government program? Was it the War on Poverty? (As an aside, kinda odd that LBJ declared War on Poverty but never on Vietnam. )


Copyright that. The only thing the government doesn't declare wars on anymore is wars.

Growing up I never imagined that everything adults said was the calculated opposite of the truth. The hippies were onto something.

I believe there was a "War on Crime" by the FBI in the early 30's sparked by the Kansas City massacre, but I've having a hard time finding a quote.

Even so, a single use may or may not be indicative of the ubiquitous meme to which he refers.

There was a war on cancer (generally associated with Nixon - Not to mention the whipping of inflation under Ford (

There also seems to have been a war on gangs during the Bush the younger's administration (,

And of course, though not exactly government declared, there is the apparent ongoing war against Christmas (still not sure who is losing that one exactly - though I'm pretty sure that Jesus would have no problem with determining that anyone involved in commerce in connection with the birth of the son of god earns the same holy whipping as the money changers in the temple).

Drug prohibition was originally pushed by early 20th century progressives as part of the entire Temperance program. Up until the late 1960s the primary opponents of drug prohibition were Old Right stalwarts. Conservatives didn't embrace the drug war until it was already well-estabilished, and they felt that ending it would be affront to law and order.


It's a great book. Her father, who died when she was very young, was Erving Goffman.

Goffman's dad was a sociologist, about a weak a scientist next to an economist as you can get. Apparently two scholars praising Erving Goffman are a certain "Fine and Manning", which I thought might be Reuben Fine, a post WWII psychologist and chess grandmaster, who wrote a book "The Forgotten Man: Understanding the Male Psyche (New York, 1987)", anticipating in at least the title the work by the Depression revisionist historical economist Amity Shlaes, "The Forgotten Man", as well as numerous chess book classics such as "The ideas behind the chess openings", but instead it's a certain Philip Manning, no relation with Bradley Manning. What an enormous waste of Google time that was.

Oops, I meant Gary Fine, no relation to Garry Kasparov.

Alice Goffman is also a sociologist. Many sociologists do great work. I really don't get the constant bashing on them.

Because sociology and anthropology and social psychology have decayed into 'apologetical' disciplines. The work certain practitioners do may be methodologically sound, but with a portside/starboard ratio of 30 to 1 among their practitioners there's a mess of questions that are not asked and there are people subject to horrendous calumnies for straying off the reservation (asking certain questions or producing inconvenient data). Also, there's a high tolerance for junk research. Also, see some of Clayton Cramer's remarks on tangling with journal editors and some of KC Johnson's on hiring criteria in American history: same process of decay.

What % of these "nonviolent" offenders are nonviolent only in the sense that Al Capone was a white collar tax cheat: that's what they could pin on him because he had all potential eyewitnesses terrified?

This is definitely a part of it. Cops like possession crimes because they are so easy to prove in court. All you have to do is put the cop on the stand to say I took the baggie that is Exhibit A from the defendant, and a lab guy to say that Exhibit A is cocaine. No he-said, she-said conflicting testimony or complicated sleuthing necessary.

I believe one of the most salient points of The Wire was that the drug war turns good cops into lazy cops. The police became complacent doing low-level controlled buys and busting street crews, because it was an easy way to put arrests on the board. Meanwhile the serious criminals and higher-ups rarely if ever were at risk because they were never in the same room as the drugs. Brining them down required long and meticulous investigations, that the brass didn't have the patience for.

I believe one of the most salient points of The Wire

Because, you know, we come to a precise understanding of the behavior of public agencies by consuming mass entertainment. Now for Inspector Morse...

Call me old fashioned, but I'm still in favor of only punishing people for the crimes that they're actually convicted of.

Almost all of them, to answer the question.

And Al Capone filled the void created by the government. And he apparently even did it in a way that was easily villainized but less easily prosecuted.

(As in, they are aren't actually violent, not that they are secretly violent. In fact, there are ton of people who are in jail for "resisting arrest" because they didn't even have any drugs on them)

+ 1

In fact, there are ton of people who are in jail for “resisting arrest”

How many Andrew? 'Resisting arrest' is a class A misdemeanor in New York. You have to work at it to receive a sentence of incarceration on any bill which has only misdemeanor charges.

As I've pointed out many times, these individuals can't pass background checks for employment or housing. But they still have to eat and get out of the rain. This gives them two options, work in the "gray" market, as illegal aliens in their own country, or operate in the criminal sphere. Computer files on every living individual mean that we are indeed morphing into a dual element society, the "clean" people who can pass a background and credit check and maintain a position in the nation/state and those that have fallen afoul of the system and have received a life sentence to loserville.

What is the economic incidence, in our winner-take-all economy, of individual liability to employers?

That is, GE can't afford many hundreds of millions of dollar lawsuits based on an individual mistake that a lawyer can claim 'might' have been avoided had they done the 'best available' background check or drug test.

It is a question.

If it becomes impossible for an individual to operate in a legitimate manner, he will be forced to operate in a criminal one. It's not a matter of philosophy or theory, it's a practical fact. If a person can't get employment on the basis of a negative background check, which cannot be changed, in order to survive he must do what must be done. This is a new, more subtle dimension in the CVs of the lower classes. If one crime eliminates a person from functioning in society, they have nothing to lose by continuing in crime, a subject that's taught on a graduate level in the US penal system.

Spend time in the ghetto and you quickly learn that criminals are not victims. The corner boys in West Baltimore are not heading off to college once drugs are legal. They will find new scams. They like crime and the drug game is their version of the self-actualizing career. Take that away and they find a new way to terrorize their communities.

There are good arguments against the drug war, but romanticizing these people is naive.

“Some criminals are switching from cocaine trafficking to prescription-drug fraud because the risk-adjusted rewards are higher: the money is still good, the work safer and the penalties lighter. Medicare gumshoes in Florida regularly find stockpiles of weapons when making arrests. The gangs are often bound by ethnic ties: Russians in New York, Cubans in Miami, Nigerians in Houston and so on.”

I've known a few PED dealers who started out selling weed. For exactly the reasons you mention, they moved from narcotics to steroids and now HGH. Smuggling it in from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean is easy. No one is looking for it. The cops are not staking out Gold's Gym looking for you. It is fairly easy to vet your clients. Getting caught usually means probation.

Libertarians tend not to know much about the drug game so they don't consider the downstream impact of legalization. The cops did a great job busting up the hierarchical street gangs of Chicago. The result was an explosion of crime. The reason is those street gangs imposed order on the corner boys. Just another example of the trade-offs that are always a part of public policy.

Explosion when, Z? You still had massive street gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles as late as 1990. You haven't had an explosion in crime since then (and it's been gradually declining in Chicago the last dozen years).

Z makes the no true Scotsman argument.

Kevin smith smokes weed every day.

Z, that is not what I learned. Also I do not think figuring out who are the "victims" is helpful - the waste of potential in these communities is staggering, as the book reminds us. I would set aside reparations for slavery and go for a 'Marshall Plan' to follow the War of Drugs.

+ a billion. It took how many comments into the thread before anyone made the observation that the lost potential of these criminals is a loss to society.

There's nothing romantic about the ghetto. How many people in those communities even know someone who works somewhere that's hiring in remotely decent jobs?


I am personally acquainted with a level 2 registered sex offender who has had multiple jobs since being released from prison 3 years ago, not including the odd-jobs work he picked up. People who pick up skills in the clink, who have friends, who have good counsel can re-integrate.

1984 was the most accurately prophetic book of the early-mid 20th C.

The fun has only just begun.

I'm curious as to the alternative. These draconian laws and law enforcement techniques were applied because these neighborhoods were unlivable and dangerous. Is it not a situation where you either have gangs with their tender ministrations terrorizing a neighborhood into submission and hopelessness, or have the police do it?

A question. Situations as described here, along with the 20% of young males in these neighborhoods being incarcerated are pretty drastic. My dealings with the police are rare; a car accident, parking tickets, speed traps and the like. I don't go through my day thinking of the police, I don't have to. It seems these folks do. I don't have any extended relatives in trouble with the law in any way. It seems to be part of family life in these neighborhoods that someone is in prison, or about to be. The contacts with the law are negative in consequence. This has been going on for a while now, almost a generation. They are entirely preventable, don't do drugs, don't steal, don't beat your girlfriend, be in bed by 10pm, don't wear a hoodie. Has this sunk in over time? Are there people actually responding to the incentives and starting to teach their kids how to avoid getting into trouble?

"These draconian laws and law enforcement techniques were applied because these neighborhoods were unlivable and dangerous. "

Or vice versa?

"I don’t go through my day thinking of the police"

I am probably demographically much like you, except that I live on the border of one of these areas you describe. So, I shouldn't have any reason to worry about cop interactions, but I also know that there will be no positive police interactions that are positive experiences. So, I have to worry about both sides of the thin blue line.

Andrew- I guess you don't live in "one of those" neighborhoods. The Guliani/Wilson/Bratton approach worked to improve the quality of life for millions- especially the lower class people stuck in "those' neighborhoods. The ability of a GOP mayor to get elected & reelected in deep blue NYC wasn't an accident.

Paging Steve Sailer! Where is that damned Steve Sailer bat signal. It's around here somewhere...oh wait, maybe I can use this dog whistle....

NYC? Didn't they just harass everyone into submission? Isn't that what I just said?

btw, NYC is nearly by definition a special case, and also not "one of those neighborhoods" on some margins. Population density is one thing that comes to mind. Enforcement is a lot cheaper per capita (probably why we build prisons). Also, in my mind a "solution" is something that works and fixes a problem. A solution would not require constantly ramping up stop-and-frisk for walking while black (WWB) (filling prisons and/or export-led gentrification) or sending undercovers to Alabama gun stores.

NYC has a monopoly on its geography (by definition) and they want to make it nice, and one might even argue their leaders have a unique responsibility to that geography and certain constituents, but doing it in with "non-adiabatic" methods or any means necessary isn't really an argument that pursuades me- or the Supreme Court, incidentally. There are a lot of things that "work" that we aren't allowed to do. There is also the general trend of crime reduction nationally that cannot be explained by Giuliani just-so stories and have explanations that bureaucrats only are front-running (e.g. lead abatement).

to andrew below- NYC is not so special a case- you can easily contrast it with Chicago to see the effect of a different policy- different policy decisions with dramatically different results

How old are you? Serious question.

A very long list of things you see in the US today are the result of the crime situation that existed. Suburbs for one, gated cities and the socially and physically demonstrated signs of inequality, the rise of the Republicans. Giuliani and his police chief that made downtown New York livable and a tourist destination.

Even the swing in criminal law was a response to another swing a couple decades previous with the Warren court.

"Giuliani and his police chief that made downtown New York livable and a tourist destination"

That is begging the question in the strictest sense. I'm not making up the lead thing, although one can consider it it just as speculative as the claim that Giuliani did anything more than free-ride on a secular drop in violent crime.

I'm surprised I have to make these points, frankly, btw.

Crime was bad. Then it fell generally. Politicians were. They always are. They did stuff. They always do stuff. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

I suspect real numbers are hard to come buy, but you can't really argue gentrification isn't happening, for example.

I don't dispute the "some people like it" argument.

New York's decline was far, far greater than that of the nation as a whole. In fact, New York's decline was so great that it skewed the entire nation's numbers, making people elsewhere think their crime rates had gone down more dramatically than they have.

Murders fell from 2245 in 91 to 331 last year. More impressively, robberies and burglaries and grand theft have fallen by a similar amount. We have yet to see if DeBlasio's changes will make crime go back up, but the answer, so far, is no.

Per capita from what base? And at what cost? Wasn't it horrible to begin with?

Raw numbers are literally meaningless.

Again I'm not disputing the aesthetic argument.

His election was a free ride on secular reaction to crime.

Cursory Google searching yields a ton of poorly done graphs and a noteworthy if unremarkable credits for NYC.

The expansion of suburbs predates the rise in crime in cities. Maybe you have the cause and effect backwards?

Suburbs are a result of many factors. Let me put it differently. Cities are now a destination of choice as a nice place to live, even for a family. For a couple of decades no one in their right mind if they had any choice at all would live in the inner core of a city because of the crime.

Then you have Detroit, a bankrupt broken dysfunctional city surrounded by functional and attractive suburbs. Crime is one reason, and a big one.

What draconian methods? The state and federal prison census is 1.6 million, or 0.55% of the population. Another 700,000 are detained in jails at any one time, or 0.23%. If you have some neighborhood where "20% of the young males" are incarcerated, you have to be looking at a narrow demographic subset (say, 21-25) in an absolutely viperous neighborhood.

Have you looked at changes in crime rates since, say, 1990?

(That's a reply to Derek above and his questions, "Has this sunk in over time? Are there people actually responding to the incentives and starting to teach their kids how to avoid getting into trouble?")

Indeed, but the incarceration rate seems to be sticky.

Modern crime policy is largely an inefficient workaround to the Warren Court rulings. Crime is almost back to early 1960s level, but it takes throwing a ton of people in prison to achieve it. Police have largely learned how to avoid Warren restrictions in the past few decades, but the consequence involves preemptively throwing a lot of non-violent people in jail, because it's hard to pin a violent crime on someone who isn't retarded (keep your moth shut, wait for your lawyer, etc.).

I would like to be lumped with those who think people who burgle houses should do time.

Presumably, that's the result of sentences handed out in the past. It's hard to tell, but if I remember the data correctly, the incarceration rate may be at its turning point right now.

Good. I hope so at least.

Interesting post which raises several questions should we legalize drugs.

For example, would there still be drug testing for employment--how relevant is drug testing to job performance. Bus drivers, no; hotel clerks, waiters, waitresses; checkout persons at Walmart; econ blogger?

If drugs were decriminalized, and treated as a medical issue, would a drug under treatment fall within the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Just because something is decriminalized doesn't mean that other societal forms of rational or irrational discrimination between persons falls to the wayside.

Anyway, a thought experiment dealing with a change in the law not having as much effect as other private changes that might have to be made.

third line should read: "a person undergoing drug treatment"

A lot fewer people would die from doctor prescribed drugs that don't even work.

I guess the point is that more than just the law has to change.

This whole piece could have been written differently.

It could have been written towards the criminals, rather than the law makers and enforcers.

Instead of "these laws and their enforcement discourage young men from seeing their children being born", once upon a time it would have been written "if you commit these crimes or if you try to dodge the punishment for them you will not be able to see your children be born."

I have a great deal of sympathy for people who try to do the right thing and get hung up. I have some sympathy for folks who try to do the wrong thing (or an illegal thing that has no actual good side) and get hung up, but it's hardly the same kind of sympathy. This article kind of comes down to the parent who doesn't want to give a punishment because the parent understands better than the child does how much the punishment will hurt.

There are plenty of arguments against our system, the ones that argue our penal system is set up as inhumane, etc. are good ones. But my response to this piece is that if a young man commits a crime and is convicted he should take his punishment like a man, and whining on his behalf because life is hard when you run away is not helpful.

Who is it, exactly, that "takes his punishment like a man"? Everyone tried for a crime does everything possible to avoid conviction and accepts punishment because he doesn't feel that any other option is viable. The best example of the insanity of the judicial system is the child support enforcement apparatus. Bob and Nancy have an argument, she throws Bob out of the house and her next move is to see the child support people, sign on the dotted lines and commit Bob to at least 18 years of financial servitude. No case worker ever says, "Nancy, maybe it'd be better for the kids if you and Bob made up." The system isn't set up that way. If Bob gets laid off and can't make the payments arbitrarily assigned, he's a felon and headed down a long road of ruin. Nancy gets to watch Seinfeld re-runs.

@chuck martel,

I know a lot of people who have taken their medicine when they have done wrong or made a mistake, lots of people strive for that, whether in legal matters or just life.

Strange the way you see money support, my husband and I are together, he works and his money goes in large part to keep our kids fed and clothed and housed. Has he then committed to at least 18 years of financial servitude? I don't think he looks at it that way (most days. . . .).

Yes, family law is super messed up. If I ruled the world, wouldn't look like that. But if a guy runs away from his kids to avoid even unjust payments, then wants to complain because he has to live in the shadows, I'm reserving the bulk of my tears for the kids, not the guy, no matter how grasping or shrewish the wife might have been.

I don't think they are talking about deadbeat dads. They are talking about people who got on the wrong side of the law and were effectively excommunicated from the right side of the law for practical social and economic purposes.

Okay, cry for the kids. Then figure out if it is the unjust payments to blame.

But unjust payments aren't to blame for parents abandoning children. It's just money. I'd eat mud before I left my kids motherless, and I think most or all of the dads here would do the same. You can believe someone is wronged without believing it is o.k. for a wronged person to then wrong another innocent in turn.

Just keep the issues separate, is all I'm saying.

Alice Goffman is just another nice white lady making a very profitable career describing horrible injustices of our society without needing to think of any viable alternatives. I bet you that she does not live anywhere close to Madison's small but pretty terrible ghetto.

Legalize marijuana.

Come back when you are done with that. You'll be ready for some more. I have PLENTY.

She lived for six years in a ghetto in Philadelphia. Although you're technically correct that she didn't live anywhere near Madison, Wisconsin, that is obviously irrelevant

Everyone tried for a crime does everything possible to avoid conviction and accepts punishment because he doesn’t feel that any other option is viable.

I think the share convicted in full-dress trials is in the low single digits in New York. Negotiated guilty pleas are the order of the day (and just part of the cost of doing business for some of these hoodlums).

Marie, I do recommend a book named "Three Felonies a Day". It comes down to the fact that there are too many criminal laws and people without conviction are probably just the ones who have never been seriously investigated.

Some day your PD may find you in possession of undersized lobster (bought in the local store, but that is no excuse under the relevant law). There are tons of absurd laws like that, usually with steep punishments, and a normal person does not have a clue when and how they are breaking one.

And then you will have the choice between going for a jury trial and risking 15 years in federal prison, or a plea bargain which will let you get out with a suspended sentence but with a permanent felony record. Will you take your punishment as a woman?

Now that would not matter that much if the world was still operating on typewriters. But somewhere in some three-letter agency, there probably is a digital folder labeled Marie where all your recordable interactions are being stored just-in-case. Sifting them through would probably reveal evidence of a few such crimes. Are you still OK?


You assume I haven't already run into the kind of situation you describe. I have. I like to think I took it like a man, but in reality I cried a lot while doing so.

Yes, there is an absurdity of legislation in this country. But that's not the premise of the article. The premise is that folks that actually break a fairly "real" law and are convicted and who run and hide are facing far greater punishment from the running than we would like them to face. I simply say that if the choice to run causes more pain than we would want them to experience, our only real option is to tell them not to run. If I have a house rule that my child breaks and the punishment is she loses her Ipad, she might try to deflect that punishment by hiding the Ipad out in the yard, where it gets rained on and she loses its use forever. That's not my fault, and the only choice I have to prevent it is to tell her not to try to evade the punishment. If the rule is a stupid one, I should ditch the rule in any case. But if the rule is a correct one, I should not ditch the rule for fear she will ruin another toy if I try to enforce it again.

I suspect it is that WE are facing a bigger punishment than we would like.

Ah, well, then that becomes a question of practicality rather than justice or law. And if the law is just, I really don't see it as being practical to "give in" to folks evading it in the hope they will fold back into polite society. I go back to the kid example, if I give my kid a time out for biting her sister (totally fictional example, time out is barbaric and we don't practice it in this household) and she makes her own life harder by fighting to get out of the corner, the last thing I want to do is give her a pass in the name of not alienating her from the family. If the rule is unjust, I need to figure that out before I enforce it, preferably before I even announce the punishment. If it's just, I have to follow through.

In other words, the government, or its agents, fulfills a parental role in regard to the citizens.

@chuck martel,

Yeah, like when a guy murders someone and the government takes it upon itself to make laws against murder and catch and punish the guy who murders, it is acting in some ways like a parent acts towards a child. Big deal. I'm not arguing for the government to regulate our bed times just because I use a parenting metaphor.

The argument as I read it was that letting these guys off the hook benefits society because we avoid alienation and further criminalization by doing so. It seems to me a pretty longstanding argument that if you want the law to engineer behavior in this way at all (and I personally doubt law can or should do that, but that's what "practicality" calls for) then going back on your punishment because someone complains about it a lot doesn't set citizens up to be all warm and fuzzy towards the polis, it sets them up to figure the polis doesn't mean what it said about the consequences of that crime, so let's see if it means it about he consequences of this one.

If a law is incorrect, or not within the purview of government, then go after it for those reasons, not because the people who are being punished for breaking the law run away from the punishment. Pretty straightforward.

I haven't said that crime should be without consequences for the perpetrator. What I'm saying is that when a person has entered into the criminal justice system they are generally no longer employable. This includes people convicted of a crime who have since been released, people charged with a crime but not convicted, and people for whom there is a warrant outstanding, a fact of which they may not be aware. This situation may be OK with bystanders but the fact remains that these individuals get tired and hungry. Since it's statistically impossible to avoid violating the thousands of laws that make up the legal complex, everyone is raw material for the enforcement/judicial/penal machinery. The presence of urban street thugs can be used to justify a police state but is that rational?

That's not even considering fallibility and corruption in the judicial juggernaut itself. Cops never lie, witnesses always tell the truth, government attorneys engage in an intense search for the truth, not a conviction. Like here: This evil person may be unemployable for the foreseeable future but she still needs to eat.

You have problems worth addressing (see the train wreck chronicled by John Grisham in The Innocent Man) which are not, however, systematic and common problems. They had an amusing scene in Madison County, N.Y. a few years back where the case against a pair of school teachers accused of plying a youngster with liquor one Saturday collapsed at a hearing before trial. Their attorney produced the credit card slips which showed just where they had been that afternoon; the whole bill was cock-and-bull. Dismissed! I would have loved to ask their attorneys whether they kept this little prize in pectoris because they did not trust the prosecutor or the cops or whether the investigators simply did not care to ascertain where the defendants were that afternoon. Since this was the odd case which actually was headed to trial, you'd have thought they'd put some sweat into it, no?

That having been said, an attorney I correspond with has a diversified practice with a great many criminal cases. His description of his clients: "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!".

@chuck martel,

Much to agree with there, but I still think that for this particular article the point is not oddball laws or wrongful convictions, the point is that there are people who have really committed real crimes and they run instead of accepting the punishment, and the running is hard on them, so we need to adjust our way of approaching crime enforcement. I just don't think that's so.

But I do like Les Miserables and the Rockford Files, so while I find your arguments a little tangential I do find a lot appealing in them.

Excellent Art Deco info.

And the lady in the article won't starve because we have welfare. If she gets out of prison at the age of 23 and has to take a job cleaning toilets, and earn back the trust of the community through hard work and honesty, finally winding up as maybe a Walmart manager instead of the executive vice president she dreamed of being, I don't find that particularly unfair -- and we should tell her that she shouldn't find it unfair, either.

We're not stoning her to death, we're recognizing that someone who could not only deceive her parents and a jury but who apparently maintained the deception for four long years while an innocent suffered from her dishonesty might not be someone we want to put in a position of trust in any business.

Of course, the diverse files held on Marie are precisely the reason that we should all strive to ensure that such databases cannot be maintained beyond what is strictly require for transparent administration of legal procedure.

How very badly I wish I had a Goodfellas quote on hand. . .

You're referring to oddball federal crimes. About 89% of all prisoners are in state prisons and county jails. Read the Penal Law of New York. There are some humbug offenses ("bla bla bla within 500 yards of a school"), but it's mostly comprehensible and conventional in its delineation of offenses.


That was also before wars on peaceful behavior, erosion of privacy, federalizing police, etc.

It's true, but it wasn't before injustice.

I'd be the first one in the closet with Elian Gonzales, or racing down the street with him, if I had the guts. But a guy caught bringing meth to a friend or trying to pretend he didn't drive drunk, assuming no other special circumstances, that's probably a take your lumps situation.

Interesting; note that this runs opposite to (though it doesn't strictly conflict with) the narrative that poor people are so harried by the increased stresses of everyday life that they're unable to make costly investments in their long-term welfare. Here, it's argued that they make costly daily-life efforts to slightly mitigate their risk of being caught.

Again, this isn't a direct contradiction, but it's a tension, and one that's likely underexplored for reasons of mood affiliation.

Both are probably true.

There are a whole host of minor infractions that can essentially place people permanently outside of mainstream employability. These range from petty drug offenses, financial problems, domestic quarrels, DUIs, etc. Its an interesting question which level of offense needs to be public information for background checks etc. The problem is once the information is available, HR people can't ignore it. You could propose that certain misdemeanor classes of offenses could not be used as an employment condition or potentially not make that information usable or available in background checks. The transgression as such is between the party and the state, not the party and the potential employer. Felony class offenses might be treated differently for obvious reasons. As an aside, in the financial industry fingerprinted FBI background checks as are done and all arrests, even those not resulting in any charges or convictions are revealed.

There are a whole host of minor infractions that can essentially place people permanently outside of mainstream employability.

I think you need to demonstrate that rather than assume that. About 12 million people have been sprung from state and federal prisons in the last 20 years. Where do you fancy they are?

I probably will read the book but I'm very skeptical about what Tyler writes.

1. "Possessing" drugs. I covered cops in several medium and big cities for a lot of years and never once did I see anyone sent to jail for any length of time for possessing anything for their own use. We live in a country of 310 million so I'm sure it has happened, probably many times, but on the whole, it's a myth. Read it, Tyler (and Alex) and accept it. It's a myth. A myth libertarians cling to, but a myth. If you get caught with a small amount of anything, you're not spending a decade in prison unless the cops know you're a professional dealer and that's the best they can get you on.

2. Selling a "small" amount of drugs. Dealers never sell more than a small amount at a time — to keep the potential sentence down. But they sell small amounts many times a day, every day, for years on end, so they are indeed professional criminals selling large amounts. Police do not waste resources on guys who pass on a bit of their monthly buy to friends at cost. So basically what you're saying here is "It's sad that professional drug dealers who have been caught have to live life on the run."

3. "Nonviolent." The implication that nonviolent offenders shouldn't do serious jail time sounds reasonable when you read it fast but isn't reasonable at all. You can do lots of very serious harm without being violent. People who repeatedly steal stuff should, indeed, spend long periods of time in prison. They do real harm. People who break into homes, ever, should do long stretches in prison. Having your home broken into can ruin your sense of safety, even if it's not violent. Burning empty buildings down is not violent. Calling in bomb threats is not violent. Stealing someone's ID is not violent. All should carry long prison sentences. People who commit such crimes and escape prison should have to live "on the run."

4. Harboring people who have done things that carry long jail times should indeed be something that carries reasonably serious punishment.

5. The whole libertarian line of "we put people in prison for far too long" simply doesn't hold up when you look at who it is that commits the vast majority of crimes — i.e. people who have already been convicted of several crimes yet are still reasonably young. If we really were jailing people for decades for non-violent crimes, then you would not read of people convicted ten times for burglary being arrested for another burglary. But you do. Hell, you read about guys being arrested for violent crimes who have already been convicted of a handful of violent crimes because, short of murder, it's pretty rare to get more than five years in prison for anything.

Tyler, in other words, is arguing against a system of punishment as far as I saw in years of writing newspaper stories about crime and cops and courts, doesn't actually exist. Far, far more typical than the drug addict who gets sentenced to decades in prison is this guy,

That guy commits the majority of all crimes. And he's very different than the nonviolent druggies who fill the prisons of the libertarian imagination. He exists. And although Tyler has never met anyone like him, his kind terrorizes places like West or North Philly.

There are jurisdictions where people do time for joints, but my understanding is that this is more a matter of history. But I would like to be able to say that with more certainty.

Indeed, violence pales in comparison to what you can do to a person.

Ad hoc enforcement is not a good thing in itself.

It may be used to leverage informants of dubious veracity.

Lots of strawmen. E.g. I have literally never heard a libertarian say "we put people in jail far too long" in general, Unless you count greater than zero for certain crimes as far too long.

Those aren't the non violent people we are talking about. Sodomy, willing drug transactions, etc. Is what we are referring to.

I think you mean 'consensual sodomy'. It was a class b misdemeanor in New York before the state Court of Appeals insisted in 1980 you could not enforce it (in a case that arose when two men were collared for fellating in a parked car). By the way, class b misdemeanors (e.g. patronizing a prostitute) were seldom punished with incarceration in 1980.

I am just as likely to think bad law causes the serial killers to get lots of chances. It is not a single line.



Here's Richard Pryor on what he learned filming a movie with Gene Wilder at the Arizona State Penitentiary. Bottom line: "Thank God we got penitentiaries!"

" I covered cops in several medium and big cities for a lot of years and never once did I see anyone sent to jail for any length of time for possessing anything for their own use. We live in a country of 310 million so I’m sure it has happened, probably many times, but on the whole, it’s a myth. Read it, Tyler (and Alex) and accept it. It’s a myth."

I was curious about the numbers, so I looked up them up.

If I understand the figures correctly, this 2012 report from the US Dept of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics ( says that 4.1% of state prisoners are incarcerated for possession alone (or, more precisely, for crimes of which drug possession was the most serious) [Table 3]. Since there are 1.34 million people in state prison, that comes out to about 55,000 people.

Amazingly, ~8% of the people who are admitted to prison are for possession (again, really for crimes of which drug possession is the most serious) [Table 4]. Since there were 610,917 people admitted, that comes out to 48,873 people sent to prison for drug possession in 2011. To reconcile these two figures, it seems like the best explanation is that we are sending ~50,000 people to jail every year for possession, but they serve short sentences or are quickly paroled.

Because even a short jail sentence is enough to wreck your employment prospects, this seems like a lot of people whose lives are, at a minimum, made much more difficult for drug possession. If, as the data seem to show, we are putting, say, half a million people behind bars every decade for drug possession, even if only a short time -- well, that isn't the sort of thing that spring to mind when I heard the word "myth."

Because even a short jail sentence is enough to wreck your employment prospects,

If you want to be a cop, security guard, attorney, or CPA. Factory and service employment, no.

Probably too late, but if you read, I'd suspect the story goes thus.

A small percentage of those sent away for possession were folks who did have personal stashes and no desire to sell professionally.

The majority were people who "possessed" drugs that they planned to sell as some part of their ongoing life as drug dealers. (And, yes, the cops really do "know" who is a drug dealer and who is just a druggie.)

Another substantial minority were people who were otherwise criminals the cops could not catch for anything else. (I know from personal experience that cops will try to put you away on anything if they know you keep beating your wife/girlfriend who is too scared to testify. This is very common and truly heartbreaking. The theory is that with you gone for a few months, they can give her a real chance to flee.)

If you're feeling frisky (and it's possible) you should look up how many of those people who were jailed for nothing more than possession have been convicted of prior felonies. I'd bet the number is over 80%

On point 3, FWIW, breaking and entering (or burglary) is usually considered a violent crime, since the potential for a showdown with someone in the house has been created.

On a totally unrelated line of reasoning, I cannot understand how Tyler takes issue with police tactics.

If someone is wanted for a crime that democratically elected representatives have deemed serious enough to carry real jail time, should the police not look for them? Is it not logical to contact their family and known friends? Are we supposed to just let them get away or cut statute limitations down to a week?

I have a huge amount of sympathy for the idea that we need some way for ex-cons who want to go straight to escape their former lives and become functional people. I have no idea what would be an answer there without putting others at an unacceptable risk of being victimized by ex-cons who are still criminals, but I agree we need to do better, not only to make life fair for people who have, indeed, done their time but also to lower the crime rate.

But to say that people should be forgiven for crimes before they've ever been punished seems totally wrong to me. You should not be able to negate the justice system merely by refusing arrest and then suffer no consequence.

I'm curious if the book will change my mind. It's already on order.

'If someone is wanted for a crime that democratically elected representatives have deemed serious enough to carry real jail time, should the police not look for them?'

So, you want the police looking for anyone who may have worked at a Swiss bank involved in violating American law? ( - 'Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse AG will pay the largest monetary penalty of any criminal tax case after being found guilty of helping Americans avoid tax.

The bank has been fined more than $US2.5 billion by the US Justice Department after it pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of "wilfully aiding in the preparation of false income tax returns.")

Trust me, that attitude won't get you an endowed chair at the Mercatus Center (and since when did non-accredited policy institutes start having endowed chairs like accreditred universities and colleges, anyways?).

Whenever there's an arrest warrant out on someone for a felony, I want the police to look for the person.

If you're asking whether I think we should issue arrest warrants for many, many people at CS who participated in that and then look for them if they go into hiding, the answer is yes.

And I'd be just as happy to see their lives ruined over their white collar crimes as I am to see the low-level burglar's life ruined over what is merely a "nonviolent" crime.

If there is accreditation for policy institutes, there shouldn't be.

'If there is accreditation for policy institutes, there shouldn’t be.'

I'd get into details, but past experience has proved that such a comment would be removed, generally promptly (you know how it works here, after all).

Suffice it to say, at least in specific cases, that such a conflation between accredited educational institutions and policy institutions is completely intentional, exploiting preconceptions to create an aura of respectability reliant on people being unaware that policy institutes can accept money for endowments while also proudly proclaiming their work is 'independent.' Accreditation remains something of a barrier to accepting any and all funds, after all.

I have had occasion in the last few years to come into contact with police and the "justice" system in Virginia in a non-lawyer role.

Focusing on drug arrests and ridiculous SWAT raids is important but it can also distract us from the way non-drug-related laws (like traffic and parking) and their enforcement amount to ongoing hassles for those people among us for whom a $40 ticket is not merely a petty annoyance to be resolved with a check and a stamp or a phone call and a credit card.

A $40 ticket may not be much to you and to me, but to someone living on less than $20k annually and having to take a 1/2 day off work to contest it, it is a serious matter.

Some day when you have some time to spare, go watch the proceedings in a traffic court and tell me the system isn't rigged no matter how "nice" the magistrate or judge seems.

In some locales, to contest a parking ticket, merely to get on the court docket you must sign an affidavit, have it notarized, and mail it or hand deliver it to the local court. (Good thing we don't require anything like that to vote....)

We are slowly but surely evolving into a tyranny consisting of the increasingly militarized bureaucratic state that demands compliance, no matter how "nice" the demand.

I keep hoping we will see more "Irish democracy" as described by James Scott: "the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people..."

Francis Menton describes this as "Old: The Rule Of Law. New: You Will Do As We Say."

I agree with everything you say, taking exception only to your dig at voter registration... which can be down at one's one pace.

I tend to believe there should be a cost to voting, of which the mildest form would be confirming one's identity.

In contrast, the amount of cost involved in any spat with the legal system is onerous by any measure, with guilty and innocent alike paying the price.

That is wrong.

Too true. I don't even need to read the book, but that probably means I should.

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