Four recent news stories about crime and punishment made me realize, yet again, how little I understand all this.

1. “HSBC to Pay $1.92 Billion to Settle Charges of Money Laundering”:

State and federal authorities decided against indicting HSBC in a money-laundering case over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system. Instead, HSBC announced on Tuesday that it had agreed to a record $1.92 billion settlement with authorities. . . .

I don’t understand this idea of punishing the institution. I have the same problem when the NCAA punishes a college football program. These are individual people breaking the law (or the rules), right? So why not punish them directly? Giving 40 lashes to a bunch of HSBC executives and garnisheeing their salaries for life, say, that wouldn’t destabilize the global financial system would it? From the article: “A money-laundering indictment, or a guilty plea over such charges, would essentially be a death sentence for the bank. Such actions could cut off the bank from certain investors like pension funds and ultimately cost it its charter to operate in the United States, officials said.” But why not punish the individuals themselves (as well has having the bank itself make restitution)?

2. “For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars”. Fifteen years ago, Stephanie George was caught with a pound of cocaine in her attic:

“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”

Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.

Life in prison for a nonviolent offender? That indeed sounds inappropriate (especially given that the HSBC executives don’t seem to be getting similar treatment for allegedly laundering money from illegal drug sales). The article continues:

Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.

Here’s my question. Was there ever a time when conservative or liberal social scientists thought it was a good idea to put someone away for life, just for dealing drugs? I would think that even fifteen years ago people wouldn’t have thought this was “a cost-effective way to make streets safer.” Again, I feel like I’m missing part of the story here.

3. “Tracing a Victim’s Path in Life to a Brazen Killing in Midtown”:

[Murder victim] Woodard, 31, was the scion of a successful family in California. His life had been a blend of achievement and puzzling setbacks that included at least 20 arrests, mostly in California, the police said. . . . He drove a Range Rover in college at Loyola Marymount University, but, as one friend said, “his personality was his bling.” This month, he had his eye on a Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG that he hoped to buy, a cousin said. . . . In 2009, for example, Mr. Woodard was arrested on robbery charges in Hermosa Beach, a Los Angeles suburb, after he struggled with a supermarket guard who tried to stop him from stealing several bottles of wine. The police said he fled in a car, hit two other cars, abandoned his car, hailed a cab and fled. . . . He had a court date in Los Angeles in January on a charge of cocaine possession.

Also this sad bit:

Mr. Woodard’s father, J. Lincoln Woodard, 72, a retired lawyer, said that he and his son’s mother had divorced in 1982 and that he had not seen or spoken with his son since the late 1990s.

So far, this is unsurprising (at least, based on my general TV and newspaper-driven impressions of street crime). But here’s the strange part: the victim was, according to the article, a law student. I thought the way it worked was that you go to law school, you get rich, then you buy the fancy cars, do cocaine, and get into trouble. Or, conversely, you get into all sorts of trouble with drugs, you go to jail, then in prison you see the light, you work hard, go to law school, and get a second chance in life. But this guy seemed to have been on both tracks at once: fancy cars, drugs, arrests, and law school, all at the same time. Bizarre.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.