Risk is the potential of losing something of value, weighed against the potential to gain something of value.
One of the basic goals of criminal sentencing is to act as a deterrent to recidivism and to others in the community, but using sentencing as a deterrent relies on the people you’re aiming to deter being able to accurately judge the risks involved.
The problem is that people, especially young people, are under qualified at assessing risks.
WHY PEOPLE ARE TERRIBLE AT ASSESSING RISKS
As a general rule there is a societal pattern for people to ignore risks because short-term gain or pleasure is too tempting to pass up.
This is especially common when a risk doesn’t really feel like too much of a risk.
However, our assessment of risk can often be impaired or biased.
“Base rates”, for example, tend to be psychologically altered depending on our experiences, knowledge and general understanding:
“If a doctor tells a non-smoking, slightly overweight 50-year-old he has an 8% chance of having a heart attack, the patient may think, ‘Well, I don't smoke, so it's probably less for me.’ The only problem is that the 8% already takes that into account.” 1
Mentally altering and double-counting base rates can cause people to both overestimate or underestimate risk.
Ambiguity and a sense of meaningless in words is another common factor in misinterpreting risk. New research shows that certain words and phrases, like “improbable” and “unlikely”, tend to be ignored or overlooked because they are so commonly used.
Conversely, words at the opposite end of the spectrum yield similar results – take for example prescription medication. Whenever the back of a packet says “may cause” and then lists a bunch of potential side effects, how often do we really stop to take the information in, or even believe it? There tends to be an attitude towards assuming we are told of the potential risks not because there is a genuine threat, but so businesses, corporations and governments can cover their own backs.
IT’S JUST HUMAN NATURE ...
There is a very strange thing in human nature: we tend to exaggerate rare risks and downplay common ones. People tend to be far more fearful of plane crashes than they are car accidents, for example, although the number of plane crashes and related deaths pales in comparison to road fatalities.
This plays into something we as a society tend to do, which is to underestimate risks we voluntarily take and overestimate the ones we can’t control.
This is why plane crashes cause more anxiety than car accidents: when we travel by plane we relinquish control. Anything that happens is completely out of our hands. We tend to believe this lack of control does not exist when we’re behind the wheel; that we have a certain amount of control over the situation. This in turn feeds into why some people justify or feel comfortable speeding despite the obvious dangers – as the person “at the helm”, they feel in control of the risk.
The human race’s inability to successfully calculate risk is often exploited. A prime example of this exists in the world of business: Con-artists make a living off of the miscalculation of risk. It’s how they’re able to do business. Graeme Hoy, a Geelong entrepreneur, recently conned people out of tens of millions of dollars through a bogus investment scheme.
Examples such as this look specifically at the general adult population. But what factors might we find that exacerbate young people’s inability to calculate risk?
WHY YOUNG PEOPLE ARE ESPECIALLY BAD AT ASSESSING RISK
Young people often identify with subcultures, which can lead to the normalisation of risky behaviours and poor decision making.
A subculture is simply a group of people that view themselves as different or not a part of the larger culture around them, holding different beliefs, interests or values. They tend to rebel against the “conformity” of society. This naturally includes rebellion against things that force society to “conform”, like schooling, rules and laws.
For some young people, subcultures provide an identity, a sense of belonging and a freedom of expression they can’t experience at home with family.
A lack of parental responsibility, respect for authority figures and discipline at school are all recognised examples of why youth subcultures exist.
However, the magnitude of peer influence cannot be overlooked:
“The most reliable finding in drug research is the strong relation between one person’s drug use and concurrent use by friends.”3
A pilot study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information recently explored the outcome of “dares” amongst 5th-8th graders. Around 50 percent of dares encouraged “problem behaviour” that put the children or those around them at risk:
Performing dares to fit in is simply a form of peer pressure.
Young adults tend to bow to peer pressure when they’re in need of acceptance. This often occurs when a person has low self-esteem or feels alienated.
In order to feel included and accepted young people are not afraid to take whatever risks necessary – even dealing and taking drugs.
WITHOUT PROPER RISK ASSESSMENT, THERE’S NOTHING BUT UPSIDE
As soon as you remove the ability for a young person to correctly assess the risks associated with harsh sentences, you eliminate the effectiveness of that sentencing.
For lots of young people, what this effectively means is that they find themselves in a situation where they are presented with sometimes wildly profitable upside with virtually no downside.
Whether they’re savvy and prolific drug suppliers making tens of thousands of dollars a week or users who supply others to support their own habits, there is an increasingly large section of what can only be referred to as “normal society” where the risks associated with supplying drugs are conveniently ignored because “everyone is doing it.”
I don’t think we should be relying on young people’s ability to correctly assess risks in this context when the results for them are potentially catastrophic, and their ability to do so seems to be consistently lacking.
In many cases, the act of supplying drugs (especially within their own peer group) can seem like a victimless crime to the perpetrators (unlike, for example, violent crimes or confidence scams/fraud where there is a clear victim).
When you work with young people and examine their subcultures and value systems it’s not hard to see why they do not adequately calculate the risks associated with drug supply or possession.
It’s like running up a big credit card debt or not paying a tax bill: it’s something that they know is technically wrong but for whatever reason they are able to rationalise away the consequences.
Imagine if you could land yourself in prison for life as a result of taking out more credit than you can afford or for not filing a tax return.
This is the type of risk we’re placing our young people in by relying on tough sentences for drug possession and supply offences to solve the social problems associated with drug usage and dependency.
Once you begin to think like this, it becomes clearly cruel to want to punish young people for the decisions they make around drugs.
When I wrote an article after 19 year old Georgina Bartter died due to a disastrous drug experience, some adults responded by saying "I'm sorry she died but it was her decision to take the drug."
That's a response that shows neither heart nor intelligence.
1. Why Are People Bad at Evaluating Risks? By Eric Horowitz
2 and 3. Adolescent Development and Pathways
to Problem Behavior via http://www.sagepub.com/
4. Peer Pressure and Risk-Taking Behaviors in Children By CHARLES E. LEWIS, MD, SCD, AND MARY ANN LEWIS, RN, DRPH