The following is excerpts from an article titled “Do Harsher Punishments Deter Crime?” by Ben Knight. To read the full article, link to the title.

It’s easy to think that the threat of punishment will simply dissuade someone from doing the wrong thing. But it turns out that deterring would-be criminals by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences is more tale than truth. 

“Deterrence is very largely an article of faith,” says UNSW Law Emeritus Professor David Brown. “I call it sentencing’s dirty secret because it’s just assumed that there is deterrence … but what the research shows is that the system has little to no deterrent effect.” 

The criminal justice researcher says harsher punishments, such as longer prison sentences, not only do not prevent crime but may actually have the opposite effect. 

“What research is increasingly showing is that imprisonment itself and punishment more generally is actually criminogenic – it makes it more likely that people are going to re-offend,” he says. 

The myth of deterrence

Professor Brown says harsher punishments that both aim for general deterrence – that is to deter the population at large – and specific deterrence to deter the individual, from re-offending in future is unfounded. 

“The severity of punishment, known as marginal deterrence, has no real deterrent effect, or the effect of reducing recidivism,” he says. “The only minor deterrent effect is the likelihood of apprehension. So if people think they’re more likely to be caught, that will certainly operate to some extent as a deterrent.”

Deterrence is an area plagued by assumptions and is under-researched, he says. There are several common narratives about deterrence that are questionable, such as assuming the offender knows the law and is aware of the penalties.

Professor Brown says we only need to look at the high rates of recidivism for past offenders to know that imprisonment doesn’t work in reducing further crime.

“Roughly around 60% of the people sentenced to prison have previously been in prison,” he says.

There are a number of civil disabilities that stem from imprisonments, such as exclusion from the job market, de-skilling and lack of access to housing, which lead offenders back to crime.

“It’s very hard to get a job with a criminal record, and particularly if you’ve been sentenced to imprisonment; it is so stigmatised,” he says. “People, for the period that they’re imprisoned, are not learning any new skills for employment.

Rehabilitation, restoration-based approaches and redefining criminal justice

Professor Brown says there’s a number of social policies that could better reduce re-offending.

“Social policies for reducing long-term unemployment, increasing adult education, providing stable accommodation, increasing average weekly earnings, and various treatment programs will bring about reductions of re-offending,” he says.

He also says there is an economic argument for fewer people being sent to prison, in that it would be a substantial saving to the community.

“It’s roughly about $300 per day to keep someone in jail, whereas, it’s roughly $23 a day for someone in community corrections,” he says. “So the money could go back into schools, hospitals, supportive housing, drug and alcohol programmes, and employment programmes.”

While the criminal justice system is not directly responsible for the major causes of offending, he says it is important to note that it largely aggravates and exacerbates them.

“It’s important to look at recidivism rates and point out that community corrections produce lower recidivism rates. But it’s also important to not have too much expectation that the criminal justice system will solve what are essentially social, economic and cultural problems,” he says.