There is a sense that politics operates on a continuum scale whose extremes are rationality and irrationality. Politicians make laws that can be seen from both perspectives depending on the particular position of the person judging whether the particular statute is good or bad. Public policy can be judged by either rational choice theory or the converse of that. The difference in the two can be seen in how crimes are litigated. A rational person can make the choice whether an act is right or wrong and has specific knowledge of how society will view that act. An irrational person is one who, for some reason, is not deemed competent to understand that what they have done is criminal in nature. Irrationality is the reason that individuals below a certain age cutoff are generally not treated with the same deterrent stance as adults, why people with metal deficiencies are held to a different standard, and why a person can be deemed temporarily incompetent due to an incredible stress (Dye, 2012, 60). The criminal justice system, and the laws which control it try to gage the understanding that the person committing the act had, and base their actions on that. This paper looks at public policy from the stance of rationality vs. irrationality.
The text addresses rationality and irrationality as it relates to public policy. Deterrence is the rational strategy that has been adopted to fight crime in society (Dye, 2012, 58). The goal of that strategy is to ensure that people are deterred from committing crimes initially. According to Keel (2005) "The central points of this theory are:
The human being is a rational actor
Rationality involves an end/means calculation
People (freely) choose all behavior, both conforming and deviant, based on their rational calculations
The central element of calculation involves a cost benefit analysis: Pleasure vs. Pain
Choice, with all other conditions equal, will be directed towards the maximization of individual pleasure
Choice can be controlled through the perception and understanding of the potential pain or punishment that will follow an act judged to be in violation of the social good, the social contract
The state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through a system of laws (this system is the embodiment of the social contract),
The Swiftness, Severity, and Certainty of punishment are the key elements in understanding a law's ability to control human behavior"
This is a logical sequence that public policy is being made with regard to how a person commits an act that is considered to be criminal. Unfortunately, and this can be seen by the underlined word all used in the third point, this is an extremely biased point-of-view that does not consider all possible variables that exist. It is true that a people are responsible for the positive or negative choices that they make, when they have the capacity to make those choices, but there are just too many times when an individual's brain is not acting rationally. It is at these times that the legislators have to think rationally and not hold every action to this high standard.
It can also be said that this strategy (deterrence) does not work with everyone. Once a person has committed a crime and become known to the criminal justice system, the goal of leaders in that system is to find ways to deter that person from committing any future crimes (Nordin, Pauleen, & Gorman, 2009; Walsh, 2010). Repeat offenders are generally dealt with more and more harshly, in an effort to stop them from committing any more crimes, but the focus of deterrence will always remain on the individuals who have not yet committed any crimes, in an effort to keep them from getting started down the wrong path in the first place.
Dye (2012) talks about how the criminal justice system is supposed to work under the rationality model. There are three levels to punishment which Keel (2005) calls key elements. The punishment of the criminal act must be certain swift and severe. In talking of these three elements Dye (2012, 62/63) says there is;
The certainty that a crime will be followed by costly punishment. Justice must be sure;
The swiftness of the punishment following the crime. Long delays between crime and punishment break the link in the mind of the criminal between the criminal act and its consequences. And a potential wrongdoer must believe that the costs of the crime will occur within a meaningful time frame, not in a distant, unknowable future.
The severity of the punishment. Punishment that is perceived as no more costly than the ordinary hazards of life on the streets, which the potential criminal will face anyhow, will not deter. Punishment must clearly outweigh whatever benefits might be derived from a life of crime in the minds of potential criminals.
Many times prisons have been constructed that the makers thought were deterrents, but they have actually been shelters for people who life more difficult in their normal lives. This may be considered irrational in the minds of some, but this brings out one of the flaws in the system of rational choice theory. The choice that one person makes based on their experience and situation, may not seem rational to another, or even to the majority of society, based in their different experience and situation. The belief that rational people think in one manner only is itself an irrational thought.
The federal government plays a strong role in law enforcement. While it does not get involved in every case and most of the criminal justice problems in a particular area are handled by local law enforcement, the federal government still makes the laws and regulations which states and municipalities must follow. Local laws can be harsher than federal laws, but making local laws more "relaxed" does not remove the illegality of the criminal act at the Federal level (Walsh, 2010). Law enforcement at this federal level -- the FBI, DOJ, ATF, DEA, and Treasury -- all have different functions to serve and different crimes to deter. But, even at this level, maybe especially at this level, the idea rational choice is used as the model for public policy. Local officers (who outnumber federal officers by a count of one million vs. just 75,000) are expected to be engaged in "enforcing laws, keeping the peace, and furnishing services" (Dye, 2012, 67). The primary duty of these police officers is also deterrence. It is believed that if there is a law enforcement presence on the streets, there will be less crime. As a matter of fact, this has become one of the prize new theories of many local police departments around the country. The theory is called "Broken Windows" is best explained by a quote from the original article by Wilson and Kelling (1982). They said that "Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the other windows in the building will soon be broken." This is basically an explanation of the spread of crime in an area because of the successful commission of another crime. This theory was tested to a large degree by then police commissioner and mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City. Although some of the citizens did not like the results of police targeting "broken window" areas, the test was success, and it spread to many parts of the country (Kelling & Bratton, 1998) This can be seen as a natural outgrowth of rational choice theory because the police acted in a rational manner toward the commission of crime in a certain area in which data suggested crime was more prevalent.
Another supposed aspect of rationality in the legislation of crime is federal law as it relates to gun control. Reducing violent crime is a significant goal of the Federal government, and this can be done through gun control to some small degree. However, problem with this type of thinking is that many crimes that are committed with guns involve people who did not have a legal right to possession of the gun in the first place (Nordin, Pauleen, & Gorman, 2009). One argument against these laws is that they are only restricting people who can, and should, legitimately own guns from having them for protection. The basic argument is one that is couched in the wording of the Second Amendment. Namely, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" (Reuters, 2012). According to one rational argument, people in the United States are guaranteed the right to bear arms in order to make sure that freedom is maintained (Reuter, 2012). However, another rational reading of the law says that individual citizens are not allowed to keep and bear arms except when they are…