An Innovative Approach to Crime

Crime and punishment is a problem as old as humankind.

Despite centuries of lawmaking on the one hand and criminology and penology on the other, despite legions of police and judges, despite libraries full of books on the subject, annual studies and statistics promulgated by the FBI and hundreds of municipal police departments, despite the untold millions spent on fighting it, and all the politicians’ promises — despite it all, the problem persists.

True, the philosophy of zero tolerance has effected a significant change, at least here in New York. But the improvement is only relative. There is less crime, and we appreciate that. But no one can pretend the problem has gone away. It still festers in the prisons and the streets, and there are still places where no sane person would venture without a bodyguard.

It would seem that all approaches have been tried — from law-and-order crackdowns to every percentage of tolerance — yet crime will always be with us, one way or another. Like terrorism, it is naïve to think the war can be won in the foreseeable future, and demagogic to promise victory.

But, like terrorism, there is no giving in; we must, if we are to survive as a civilized society, continue to try to think of means to prevent crime and punish, or rehabilitate, criminals.

In a praiseworthy step, last Tuesday, the Montgomery County Police of the state of Maryland warned that people who picked up money dropped on a city street during a recent bank robbery must return what they found or face criminal charges.

Police said they are still seeking the suspect, who dropped the money while fleeing, and are asking people to return any bills they recovered at the scene in Silver Spring or face prosecution for theft.

On the face of it, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, just a typical call for cooperation from the public. But the simplicity of the announcement belies its innovative crime-fighting potential.

The underlying assumption is that the folks, or at least some of them, who picked the money up off the street were unaware that it had been stolen. Or, if they knew or suspected the truth (fresh, crisp bills, maybe even in series, could raise a thought), didn’t realize that it might not be perfectly legal and ethical to put it in their pockets and walk home with it.

Think of how many crimes could be treated the same way. How often people are simply unaware of the circumstances of a crime, or ignorant of the law (no excuse, of course), and all they really need is to be better informed. Or if they do suspect foul play, and have a pang of conscience, however faint, all they need is a little encouragement, a gentle push, to do the right thing.

Extrapolating from the Maryland case is not so easy, of course. For one thing, there has been no follow-up report of anyone returning said money. And even if somebody did, it would not necessarily have any bearing on the bank robber himself, not to mention more serious crimes, like trafficking of illegal substances or murder.

Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine that a city-wide appeal for a thief or murderer to turn himself in would do much good. Surely such individuals already know the gravity of their deeds and the severe penalties they would face if arrested.

On the other hand, we may be taking too much for granted. Pollsters have been shocked by the ignorance of the average person. They were shocked again recently at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania when they found that only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the government and 35 percent couldn’t name any of them. That over 70 percent of Americans don’t know a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate is required to override a presidential veto and that 21 percent of people think a 5–4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for a final decision. It also found that over 60 percent of Americans don’t know which political party controls the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. (The researchers noted, though, that such ignorance does not stop them from strongly disapproving of the way government is run.)

Still, whatever the gaps in civics knowledge, you don’t need a high school diploma to know that killing and stealing are wrong.

Then again, if the Ten Commandments are not on the curriculum or on display in classrooms and courtrooms throughout the land (by order of the Supreme Court), maybe not everyone knows about “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.”

It could be that a significant portion of the criminal population is simply uninformed. If the police would just announce that what they have done is a crime, and that they should return the stolen money, or confess to their crime and face judgment, many would do so. They just need to be informed, need a gentle push.

It would be worth an experiment, and it wouldn’t cost much, either. The only risk is that if the authorities would try it they might be as shocked as the Annenberg researchers at the ignorance out there. Not just at the way government works, but the way morality works.