Venus flytraps. Exotic. Mysterious. Man-eaters.
Actually, no to all of these. Most surprising to most, they are not exotic. At least, not to Americans. Many of these plants are actually indigenous to…. North Carolina.
I first heard this fact on a podcast called Criminal. Not to be confused with the wildly popular and highly recommended by me podcast Serial. In the Criminal podcast we learn that Venus flytraps are being poached at an alarmingly high rate from their indigenous region and as of the release of the podcast, there was no solution in sight. The penalty (if you could actually catch a poacher, or “Trapper” as they were referred to on the podcast) was a “misdemeanor charge with a fine of $10, $50 at most. This has done little to deter repeat offenders.” Says the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
So let’s talk about deterrence here for a minute. Deterrence theory is supposed to work like this: if people understand that the punishment for criminal behavior will be swift, certain and severe, they will likely not engage in it.
Now let’s break this down from a behavioral perspective:
I think we can first all agree that criminal punishment is a consequence. Yes? Yes.
Remember that consequences can fall into two categories. Punishers and Reinforcers.
Reinforcers= follow a behavior and ↑ the future likelihood of that behavior occurring again.
Punishers= follow a behavior and ↓ the future likelihood of that behavior occurring again.
Now deterrence theory works on the idea that we, as intelligent beings, don’t always need to encounter every consequence in order for it to shape our behavior. We can simply be told what the consequences are, weigh the impact in our heads, and engage in the behavior that we choose. And THAT is where the key piece is. We weigh the impact.
According to deterrence theory, the impact should be clear. The consequence will be swift, certain and severe. Let’s break that part down now:
Swift= The consequence will follow the behavior in a timely fashion.
Certain= The consequence will be delivered following the behavior. That is, there is little to no chance that the person will “get away” with the behavior.
Severe= The consequences will be something that the person cannot afford to do again- whether we are talking monetary cost, social cost or otherwise.
But are the punishers for criminal behavior swift, certain and severe?
NOT A ONE.
And therefore, according to deterrence theory itself (!), there WILL likely still be criminal behavior in the world.
So what can we do?
You might be thinking, well, cops can’t be lurking around every corner at all times, therefore the odds of keeping up with “Certain” are out.
Then, our judicial system makes “Swift” pretty difficult, especially for more severe crimes (which seems completely bass akwards).
And as for “Severe” well that’s in the eye of the beholder.
Let’s take speeding tickets as an example. What if I’m a millionaire who enjoys speeding?
For starters, what are the odds that each time I speed, I’ll get a ticket? Not likely.
Then, how quickly will this ticket make a dent in my pocket? A month? Two? Ok. That might be something that matters to me….only…I’m a millionaire so that makes this punishment not so severe for me.
Let’s be clear. The idea of swift, certain and severe IS a good one. In theory. If you COULD make criminal punishers more effective in at least ONE of these categories, you would be on to something.
Red light cameras for example, were on to something. Make the penalty more Certain, change behavior. Where the flaws were in this thought process were in the understanding of the relationship between behavior and results. They might have actually been changing the correct behavior- running red lights. However what they were more interested in were the expected results- reduction in crashes. And in fact, there was a surprising relationship between the two. Crashes actually increased as red light cameras were put into place. Perhaps because people were now slamming breaks at the light to make sure they didn’t run it and therefore causing more rear-end collisions? Therefore engaging in the “correct” behavior but causing a more serious result? Possibly. The folks putting these procedures together need some help in implementing sciences, but the theory was sound. Increase Swift, Certain, Severe- Change behavior.
So Back to Venus flytraps. The good thing about establishing deterrence for this crime is that we have a sense for what motivates these criminals, which is always the first step in understanding how to use consequences to change behavior.
So the criminal consequences here were not Swift, Certain, or Severe.
It seems someone noticed that these criminal punishers weren’t acting as punishers at all. They were doing nothing to decrease the future behavior of stealing these special native plants.
As of last month, penalties for stealing Venus Flytraps from the wild have now increased to be a felony in North Carolina punishable by up to 25 months in prison. Now that is severe, but let’s see if the Certainty can keep up with a behavior that occurs in the wilderness of North Carolina. Time will tell.
And now, since you’re all thinking about it…..
References: Deterrence Theory: http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/deterrence-theory-of-punishment-definition-effect-on-law-obedience.html#lesson North Carolina Coastal Federation: http://www.nccoast.org/m/article.aspx?k=228950a9-6a1b-4392-87a0-fad0b5ee1ccd Red Light Camera Research: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/05049/