• Impoverishing Corruptors, Why Not?


    The idea of impoverishing corruptors is not a new one. In fact our Anti-Corruption Law allows the state to confiscate the assets of convicted corruptors and requires them to prove that their assets are not the product of corruption in order to get them back. But this idea has been generally accepted with mixed feelings. 

    Some people believe that seizing the assets of corrupt individuals that were not actually acquired through corruption is a violation of human rights, especially when the state takes those assets for good. For them, the state should only take assets of corruption. I think this is a ridiculous idea, and I will tell you why. 

    Sanctions are sanctions. Why do we have sanctions? Because we want to impose costs on the criminals, we want to let them fully understand the notion that crime does not pay. Because if crime pays, people will have more incentive to commit crimes.

    To achieve that, we must ensure that whatever benefits criminals receive, the state will take it back, and impose additional costs on them, making clear that the costs of criminal activities will always outweigh the benefits.

    Furthermore, the lower the probability of getting caught, the higher the sanctions should be. Why? This is to compensate for the fact that some people might not get caught and therefore will suffer no costs for their crimes. Of course, we need to take into account this probability and let people know that if they get caught they will receive a higher punishment. 

    Having said that, I will argue that a prison sentence is not a cost-efficient type of sanction. The benefits of sending criminals to prison are highly questionable. The costs are very clear. First, taxpayer money is being used to pay for these criminal lives in the prisons. Second, there is no guarantee that prisons will change them into better people (at least in the current conditions in Indonesia). Third, there is always a possibility that richer inmates can bribe prison guards for their own benefit, simply because being a prison guard is not a well-paid job.

    People should also understand that sending people to prison is actually a violation of human rights; you restrict the freedom of the criminals. Now if you can agree with prison sanctions, how could you say that taking the assets of criminals is against human rights? That does not make any sense.

    I think this is the right time to think carefully about what type of sanctions we should develop in Indonesia and how we can utilize each type of sanction to deal with various types of crimes. Using prison and fines as the main sanctions is no longer enough. After all, all crimes have their own characteristics and underlying incentives.

    The incentives that lead people to corruption might be entirely different from the incentives that lead people to, say, murder or rape. Understanding the incentives of these different crimes will help us in designing effective and efficient sanctions.

    So let us return to the case of impoverishing corruptors. Money and other types of valuable assets are the bloodline of corruptions. Based on a simple economic analysis, we can say that people engage in corruption because they perceive that the benefits of doing so will be higher than the costs.

    Suppose the value of your corruption assets is $20 million. Assuming that the costs of the sanctions multiplied by the probability of being caught is still lower than $20 million, economic analysis dictates that rational bad men will engage in corruption. This means that even getting back the whole $20 million would not be enough!

    In addition, the people who argue against impoverishing corruptors say that the state should just recover the stolen assets. Again, this is clearly not enough. For each batch of stolen assets there are various opportunity costs for the government where the government could have invested those assets to generate more revenue. There are also costs for recovering those stolen assets. The law  enforcement system is not free.

    Thus, it makes sense that the state should not only recover the stolen assets, but also the expected profits and interest that it would have received if those assets could have been used by the government in the first place, plus the whole cost of the criminal proceedings. Meaning that if a corruptor takes $20 million, he must be required to repay a lot more than that.

    I do not see any good reason why we should not impoverish corruptors. Sending them to prison without taking their assets would only add a burden to the state budget, and is not efficient or maximizing welfare. It’s time to think like economists when dealing with pricey legal issues.
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