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Crime Control Theatre: Act Two

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The research team that exposed the ineffectiveness of the Amber Alert system — the topic of a Miller-McCune report last December — has just published a follow-up study refining its thesis and suggesting a similarly vigorous look at other dubious crime-control strategies.

In the June 2008 issue of the journalCriminal Justice Review, Timothy Griffin and Monica K. Miller of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Reno restate their contention that the Amber Alert system — in which messages to look out for a kidnapped child are rapidly and widely disseminated throughout a community — amounts to little more than “crime control theater.”

Their research found the system “requires the nearly immediate synchronization of a number of unlikely events” in order to function as intended.

Griffin and Miller note that “The system is premised on the notion that faster response can save lives,” which is highly dubious. If an abductor intends to kill a child – a tragedy that occurs only in extremely rare cases – the murder usually takes place within a few hours after the kidnapping, which is not enough time for the Amber alert system to become operational.

They add that this “conceptually flawed” approach might have some deterrent benefit, but only if potential kidnappers mistakenly believe it actually works.

In their new paper, Griffin and Miller note that their notion of “crime control theater” could be applied to “any number of viscerally appealing but empirically dubious crime control policies, such as Scared Straight, correctional boot camps, three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws and so on.” They suggest that when such ideas are proposed on a state or local level, experts in policing and criminology could rate them, using data to highlight the fact that certain programs are emotionally satisfying but unlikely to reduce crime -- similar to what seems to be the case with restrictions on where sex offenders can live.

“ ‘Highly touted’ but minimally effective interventions would score the highest theatrical rating,” they write.

Sounds like a four-star idea.