Criminal Incapacitation

Criminal Incapacitation

by William Spelman

View All Available Formats & Editions

There is nothing uglier than a catfish. With its scaleless, eel-like body, flat, semicircular head, and cartilaginous whiskers, it looks almost entirely unlike a cat. The toothless, sluggish beasts can be found on the bottom of warm streams and lakes, living on scum and detritus. Such a diet is healthier than it sounds: divers in the Ohio River regularly report


There is nothing uglier than a catfish. With its scaleless, eel-like body, flat, semicircular head, and cartilaginous whiskers, it looks almost entirely unlike a cat. The toothless, sluggish beasts can be found on the bottom of warm streams and lakes, living on scum and detritus. Such a diet is healthier than it sounds: divers in the Ohio River regularly report sighting catfish the size of small whales, and cats in the Mekong River in Southeast Asia often weigh nearly 700 pounds. Ugly or not, the catfish is good to eat. Deep-fried catfish is a Southern staple; more ambitious recipes add Parmesan cheese, bacon drippings and papri­ ka, or Amontillado. Catfish is also good for you. One pound of channel catfish provides nearly all the protein but only half the calories and fat of 1 pound of solid white albacore tuna. Catfish is a particularly good source of alpha­ tocopherol and B vitamins. Because they are both nutritious and tasty, cats are America's biggest aquaculture product.

Editorial Reviews

Supports the proposition that a few career criminals are responsible for most crime, and that if we can identify them and remove them, essentially for good, from society, then we will not have overcrowded jails, overworked police, or unsafe streets. The arguments for and against such an approach are becoming increasingly volatile. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kent E. Portney
In a policy area that is as charged with emotion as any, debate about the proper goals of criminal justice and the criminal sanction is frequently dominated by the uninformed and the politically expedient. There is little doubt that the idea of incapacitating criminals has captured the imagination, if not the pocket books, of the American people and many of their representatives. Yet it is not beyond the realm to wonder, as many scholars do, whether prescriptions to focus the criminal sanction exclusively on incapacitation seek a quick fix, perhaps carrying high hidden and long-term costs, that in the long run will prove no more effective in reducing crime than any other possible reform. In the face of this, Professor William Spelman from the LBJ School, attempts to provide a rational econometric analysis of incapacitation to demonstrate that when utility issues are systematically investigated, pursuing policies of broad based incapacitation are much more of an economic gamble than pursuing policies of selective incapacitation, where specific types of criminal offenders are targeted. Indeed, the central focus of this book is not on the incapacitative effects of crime control policies per se, but rather the economic efficiency of pursuing some kinds of incapacitation-oriented policies rather than others. This is not a book for the faint of heart when it comes to statistics and mathematical modelling. Its overall methodology is one of identifying the types of data that would be needed to make predictions or estimates of the crime-reduction effects of incapacitation, to review the existing empirical literature and sources of these types of data to establish the range of existing estimates, to use these estimates to make educated guesses that can be plugged into models which estimate crime-reduction effects, and to conduct some sensitivity analyses to investigate how dependent the crime-reduction estimates are on particular types of data. For example, starting in Chapter 2, Spelman addresses the need to estimate the number of offenses that criminal offenders commit per year, a rather important piece of information if one is to make estimates of the number of crimes not committed due to incapacitation. After reviewing existing data and assessing specific threats to the validity of these data, Spelman develops a methodology to adjust or weight existing data to correct for biases. As much as anything else, Chapters 2 through 5, however, describe how much uncertainty there is in existing estimates of critical characteristics of the criminal population. Chapter 3 focuses on the offense rate -- the number of crimes committed per offender per period of time -- an important factor in the ultimate computation of a benefit/cost ratio associated with incapacitation. Chapter 4 examines "the criminal career," in an effort to estimate the frequency of crimes offenders commit at different ages. Spelman finds that high and low rate offenders are less likely to drop out of criminal activity at any given time than offenders with moderate offense rates. Chapter 5 focuses on arrest rates -- a factor which necessarily affects the ability of the criminal justice system to incapacitate. Spelman finds that as offenders gain experience committing serious crimes, they learn to avoid being arrested by police. Police tend to learn to identify experienced offenders, but their efforts are overwhelmed by the effects if offender learning. Starting in Chapter 6, Spelman uses the data estimates derived in the previous chapters to begin making estimates of the crime-reduction effects from incapacitation. He distinguishes between "collective incapacitation," (addressed in Chapter 6), where the focus is on the crime-control effects, due to incapacitation, of the present criminal justice system, and "selective incapacitation," (addressed in Chapter 7), where the focus is on efforts to increasingly target specific types of offenders. I might add that nowhere is there a clear definition of the concept of collective incapacitation as used in the analysis, although it does have to do with "...the likely crime-control effects of the present criminal justice system."(p. 197) The problem with this, of course, is that the current system incorporates, to varying degrees, efforts to selectively incapacitate. This raises the question of whether the implicit description of current practice as pursuing collective incapacitation has any real meaning. There is little question that this book represents a significant contribution to the empirical literature on incapacitation. It is not, however, without problems. For example, because the effort is oriented around secondary analysis of existing data from other sources and studies, there is no consistent data base used throughout the study. This means that some of the estimates are based on data from states, where a significant amount of the data come from California, Michigan, and Texas. Other data come from studies of cities, especially Philadelphia, Washington, and New York. In some cases, data are available for a broader array of states, and no explanation is given for why expanded analysis is conducted only on a particular handful of them. At one point, data from a study conducted in London are presented without any explanation of why this might be pertinent to the analysis of criminal incapacitation in the U.S. Perhaps a more difficult issue has to do with the issue of drug-related crimes. Although Spelman's analysis incorporates analysis of "drug sales" crimes, it is not at all clear that the analysis was able to fully capture either the challenge that drugs have created for the justice system, or the potential for selectively incapacitating offenders who have committed crimes where drugs are involved. Most practitioners, casual observers, and some scholars seem to believe that there has been something of a fundamental change in the way that drugs influence criminal activity today, and that this change is of relatively recent vintage. Initially, this raises the question whether only very recent data should be used to model crime-reduction effects of incapacitation. The potential for selective incapacitation may not have been fully captured in this analysis because it was not able to distinguish crimes where drugs played some role. A policy of selective incapacitation could very easily be formulated to target offenders who commit robbery or burglary where there appears to be some involvement with drugs, such as crack cocaine. Spelman's analysis sheds little light on the potential cost-effectiveness of such targeting. All this is to say that perhaps selective incapacitation would be even more cost-effective than Spelman's analysis suggests. All things considered, Spelman's work represents an impressive attempt to assemble what is known about incapacitation, extending that knowledge to make it more generalizable. By assessing the quality of data relevant to incapacitation, and by addressing the issues of uncertainties associated with these data, Spelman has done a service to scholars by providing a clear picture of major areas where future analysis would be productive. Ultimately, the analysis should add a note of caution to any policy maker who sees the indiscriminate pursuit of incapacitation goals as the answer to the crime problem in the U.S.

Product Details

Springer US
Publication date:
The Plenum Series in Crime and Justice
Edition description:
Softcover reprint of hardcover 1st ed. 1994
Product dimensions:
5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.24(d)

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >