Nov 30, 2010

Do "getting tough on crime" policies work to deter criminal behavior?

A recent publication by the Sentencing Project, Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty versus Severity of Punishment  written by Valerie Wright, Ph.D. tackles the question: Does the threat of an enhanced sanction provide any deterrant benefit" to someone who might otherwise commit a crime?  The paper postulates that more severe santions do not have any significant effect on reducing crime because:

  • Research demonstrates that the "general public tends to underestimate the severity of sanctions generally imposed" and are often unaware of any enhanced sentencing structure.
  • Deterrance theory "assumes people are rational actors who consider the consequences of their behavior," however 1/2 of prisoners are under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of their offense.
However, according to Wright,  research demonstrates that increasing the certainty of punishment does serve to deter criminal behavior. For more on this topic, see HOPE probation's research brief.

Nor do harsher sentences appear to reduce recidivsim.  In one 1999 study involving over 300,000 offenders, longer sentences actually increased the liklihood of a return to prison. Those who remained in the community had the lowest liklihood of recidivism.

Click here to read the Sentencing Project's latest paper in full.