Oct. 22, 2007— -- What would stop you from doing drugs? Or committing a murder?
For most of us, the prospect of jail time for smoking a joint -- or going to death row for pulling a trigger -- would make us think twice about committing these crimes. Yet these consequences don't factor into the decisions of many, which has many experts questioning such deterrents as drug testing and capital punishment.
In a study published late last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers found that the deterrent impact of random drug testing in high school student athletes left much to be desired.
"We found that drug testing did not decrease drug use among young adults," says study author Dr. Diane Elliot, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. "Drug testing is not the silver bullet that is going to stop students using drugs in high schools."
There are many deterrents in life, from detention for bad classroom behavior to fines for parking illegally. In theory, a fear of retribution makes people behave in a certain way, but some experts believe the practical application of this theory has not been effective.
"It is very clear that deterrents are not effective in the area of capital punishment," says Dr. Jonathan Groner, an associate professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health, who researches the purported deterrent effect of capital punishment.
"The threat of death does not deter people from committing capital crime, especially murder," he says. "There was a case here in Ohio of a police officer who murdered his wife. As a law enforcement officer, he knew the consequences, but he still committed the crime."
And there are several reasons to explain why people still commit crimes or take drugs, even though they know they might be punished for their actions. In some cases, deterrents don't work because people don't think clearly in the heat of the moment.
"The psychological mind-set of the criminal is such that they are not able to consider consequences at the time of the crime," says Groner. "Most crimes are crimes of passion that are done in situations involving intense excitement or concern.
"People who commit these crimes are not in a normal state of mind -- they do not consider the consequences in a logical way."
In other cases, the consequences of the action are too far in the future. Dr. Carlyle Chan, a professor of professional development at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says that deterrents only work if the consequences are immediate.
"In general, deterrent threats work best when they are highly visible," she says. "For example, when you are on the highway and you see a police highway patrol car, with or without a radar gun, you slow down or at least check your speedometer."
In addition, some people believe they can cheat the system and get away with their illegal behaviors.
"When the deterrent is not obviously present, there can be denial," says Chan. "Youths, in general, feel more invincible and may think they are less likely to get caught."
Applied to the above speeding analogy, if people believe they can get away with it, they are more likely to try it.
Since the fear of punishment does not make people change, some experts believe that rewarding good behavior might be more effective. Chan believes that the "best way to change behavior is through positive reinforcement, or rewards."
Elliot agrees and believes we should help those accused instead of punishing them. She says high schools should treat drug use as a medical problem and offer help to the students who test positive for drugs or alcohol.
"We should be helping these kids, not punishing them," she advises. "There needs to be educational programs to help students make healthy decisions. We want kids to be able to go to their teacher or their coach if they have a problem instead of hiding it."
Other experts suggest the solution to criminal behavior may lie in recognizing the underlying causes of the problem and treating it at its source. For example, it may be that improving certain environmental and social factors is more effective at curbing the murder rate than capital punishment.
Groner explains how decreasing the prevalence of alcohol stores in neighborhoods might be one way to decrease the number of violent crimes.
"There are environmental factors that predispose people to murder," he explains. "Murder is correlated with availability of alcohol. The more alcohol stores there are in a neighborhood, the more firearm violence there is. One way to reduce the crime would be to have fewer places selling alcohol."
And improving social and economic factors might also prove to be more effective than deterrents in preventing murders. When people feel they have resources and a better life, they are less likely to commit crimes.
"The murder rate is most closely associated with the socioeconomic health of the country," Groner says. "The murder rate in the U.S. was highest during the Depression. … Also, the majority of people on death row are from the most blighted parts of the U.S. They are very poor and very impoverished. A very high percentage have mental health problems.
"Good access to health care and improving the socioeconomic health of our country's cities would reduce the murder rate more effectively than executions."
However, solving these larger problems is often much more complicated than sending a murderer to jail. And only rewarding positive behavior would require a complete overhaul of the current criminal justice system.
"These big ticket issues are more complicated," says Chan. "If it they were simple to solve, it would have been done long ago."