The Truth Limps After: Social Science and Advocacy in Chicago Gun Sentencing
Ludwig attempts to prove his point that longer sentences lead to more deterrence through his discussion of Project HOPE. Project HOPE was an experiment in Hawaii about reducing probationer recidivism. The theory behind Project HOPE was that punishment for probationers was too unreliable: probationers were rarely punished for violating the conditions of probation, but when they were, the punishment could be severe, up to months or years in prison. Project HOPE used swift, certain and very short (a few days or weeks in jail) punishments for probation violation[s]. The experiment was effective: probationers assigned to HOPE were significantly less likely to be revoked from probation.
However, Project HOPE did not prove anything about the effect of longer sentences. A very small, rapidly delivered, and certain punishment was all that was needed. Ludwig tries to link the two by saying that Chicago gun punishments are “variable” and “inconsistent.” But the analogy fails. The Project HOPE researchers wrote: “All too often probation practices effectively allow hard-drug-abusing criminals to continue using drugs with impunity … sanctions are too rare and too delayed. When sanctions are imposed, they tend to be too severe (months, or occasionally years, in prison.)” As the researchers go on to explain, Project HOPE is an experiment about how, so long as punishments are consistently given, they can be extremely effective even if they are quite minor. The results suggest that shorter sentences are just as good, if they are consistently applied.
Unlike the Hawaii drug probationers who committed violations but avoided punishment, all Chicagoans convicted of illegally carrying guns are punished. Almost all spend time in jail awaiting bond hearings, plea bargaining, or trial. As Ludwig describes in his own memorandum, 75% of illegal gun-possession defendants are imprisoned and 14% receive probation. A few receive very light punishments—four percent are sentenced only to community service—but no one who is convicted for illegal gun possession escapes punishment. And sentence enhancements do not increase the likelihood of punishment. Sentence enhancements are only an investment in imprisoning individuals, not finding and prosecuting gun carriers. Ludwig concludes this section by writing, “Any measure capable of reducing [variability in gun sentences] and increasing the consistency or certainty of sanctions would be expected to help reduce gun-carrying through deterrence.” But he rests on weak foundations, because the proposed bill does nothing to increase the certainty of sanctions.