February 9, 2009

Art Theft: Does punishment really have a deterrence effect?

Earlier this month, in my post "Art Crime and Punishment" I discussed the need to establish punishment for committing various art crimes according to not only the harm inflicted on the public sphere, but also to the level of damage done to the work of art (its being beyond repair, or kept in proper humidity/temperature/preserving it while stolen). This post followed up one from December, "Numbers Game: Why Art and not a Ferrari?" that discussed the rates of success of criminals committing art theft compared to other crimes.

Recently, I researched documentation that supports this view that the certainty of punishment could be a motivation for crime. Currently, it is estimated that art theft cases are solved about 10% of the time. In August 1998, the National Center for Policy Analysis published an article on the Impact of Punishment on Crime. In "Certainty of Punishment vs. Severity of Punishment," the article discusses which is the greatest deterrent. The NCPA states,
In their decision making, prisoners are much more sensitive to changes in certainty than in severity of punishment. In terms of real-world application, the authors of the study speculate that "long prison terms are likely to be more impressive to lawmakers than lawbreakers." Supporting evidence for this viewpoint comes from a National Academy of Sciences panel which estimated that a 50 percent increase in the probability of incarceration prevents about twice as much violent crime as a 50 percent increase in the average term of incarceration. Likelihood of punishment often tends to affect property crimes more than violent and sexual offenses. This point is borne out in a study by Itzhak Goldberg and Frederick Nold showing that in communities where more people report burglaries to the police, fewer burglaries take place. A tendency to report crimes has an aggregate deterrent effect on criminals because it raises expectations of punishment. (reference to Itzhak Goldberg and Frederick C. Nold "Does Reporting Deter Burglars? An Empirical Analysis of Risk and Return in Crime," Review of Economics and Statistics 62, August 1980, pp. 424-31)
Accordingly, in light of the FBI's claim that 12.4%, 18.6%, and 12.6% of burglaries, larceny thefts, and motor vehicle thefts, respectively, were considered cleared by arrest or by exceptional means, it would be easy to conclude that the criminal mind would be drawn to art theft more so than other crimes. The greater the possibility for his or her getting away with art theft, as this study highlights, certainly must influence the criminal mind.

Some food for thought:
The NCPA states in the beginning of the excerpt that some studies show it is "prisoners" who are more sensitive to the certainty of punishment. This should be accounted for as not every art thief is a Myles Connor-type repeat offender. Nevertheless, the NCPA attempts to support a blanket claim by citing that the likelihood of punishment has a greater deterrence effect on nonviolent crimes as opposed to violent and sexual. The report also states that there is a decrease in burglary statistics in communities where more people report burglaries to the police.

Additionally, it would be interesting to see the art crime stats since the UK passed the "Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003." The Act in Section 1 provides conviction on indictment of up to 7 years imprisonment and/or a fine, where a person: dishonestly deals in a cultural object that is tainted, knowing or believing that the object is tainted (Simon Mackenzie and Green, Penny, "Criminalising the Market in Illicit Antiquities," http://ssrn.com/abstract=1004267). In his other research, Mackenzie questions the effectiveness of such an act in discouraging the illicit trade.

Rather than passing stricter legislation with severer penalties, it would appear that the Sûreté du Québec and RCMP's announcement to create a new squad dedicated to art related crimes is the proper course of action.