Saturday, April 19, 2008

Picking Up Trash

I went to the Men's Prayer Breakfast this morning at my church to talk about mental illness. My experience is that many people, unless they have studied it in college, or had the misfortune to have family or friends affected, are at best ignorant, and serious misconceptions about mental illness from the popular culture.

Afterwards, a group from the church was headed out to pick trash along Victory Blvd. between Eagle and Cloverdale, since we have taken that on as a responsibility. We put on our orange safety vests, grabbed our safety orange trash bags, and started walking.

I wasn't surprised by the number of empty--or partly empty--alcoholic beverage containers. I think Idaho is one of the states where an open alcohol container is a no-no. (I never bothered to find out because I don't drink.) If you think that you are in danger of being pulled over at night, discarding the beverage probably makes sense. What startled me was the number of cigarette butts I found along the side of the road. Doesn't anyone use an ashtray? It isn't like they are options on cars.

One of the recurring arguments about punishment of crimes is severity vs. certainty. There is a school of thought that says that the certainty of punishment matters more than the severity of punishment. Pretty obviously, a $50 fine for speeding would be a strong discouragement if every single time you exceeded the speed limit, you were pulled over and ticketed. This would probably more reliably stop people from speeding than a $1000 fine that had only a tiny chance of being assessed.

These cigarette butts should be a pretty good indication of this. Idaho Code 18-3906 provides for a $300 fine for littering along public roads. (And amusingly enough, the court may order the defendant to pay $50 of the fine be paid "to the person or persons, other than the officer making the arrest, who, in the judgment of the court, provided information that led directly to the arrest and conviction of the defendant." A finder's fee! Excellent incentive system!)

A $300 fine for failing to put the butt in your ashtray is truly huge--and yet the chance of getting caught and fined--even with that finder's fee provision--is trivial. I don't know anyone who has ever been fined for littering. Pretty clearly, even a $2 fine--if it was nearly certain--would achieve the desired result.

I'm not suggesting that there is any solution to the littering problem (except trying to raise the consciousness of litterers--don't hold your breath), just that this is a reminder that certainty matters more than severity.

UPDATE: A reader reminds me that sometimes these "incentives" have their own set of problems--such as people looking for a way to get rich by turning others in. I would hope that a $50 fee, even for the poorest Idahoan, wouldn't encourage intentional false reporting.

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