Policy Documents

Does Punishment Work to Reduce Crime?

Morgan Reynolds –
November 1, 2000

Does punishment work to reduce crime?

The answer seems obvious to most Americans: Yes, of course punishment reduces crime. Punishment converts criminal activity from a paying proposition to a nonpaying proposition (at least sometime), and people respond accordingly.

We all are aware of how incentives affect our decisions. Yet controversy over the very existence of a deterrence and incapacitation effect of incarceration has raged in elite circles, including at a House subcommittee meeting at which I testified.

Simple, Powerful Logic

The logic of deterrence is pretty obvious, and the evidence is powerful too. First, consider the September 18 issue of Forbes, which asks John Lott, senior research scholar at Yale Law School and author of More Guns, Less Crime, "Why the recent drop in crime?" His answer: "Lots of reasons--increases in arrest rates, conviction rates, prison sentence lengths." Lott wisely mentions these facts before turning to other factors like increased private deterrence through concealed handgun carrying laws and changes in illegal drug markets.

Next, consider Daniel Nagin, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor of public policy, who criticized Lott's finding that shall-issue, concealed carry licensing laws exert an independent deterrent effect on crime. "A number of studies have been successful in isolating a deterrent effect," writes Professor Nagin in a 1998 review of the scientific literature on deterrence and incapacitation. "The combined deterrent and incapacitation effect generated by the collective actions of the police, courts, and prison system is very large."

In sharp contrast to the situation 10 years ago, experts who assert the contrary fight a rearguard action. Crime rates have fallen 30 percent over the last decade, while the prison and jail population doubled to two million. Most people are able to connect these dots (The New York Times aside). Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker points out that the current wave of home building in our cities stems from these dramatic gains in public safety.

During the subcommittee hearing, Marc Maurer of the Sentencing Project cast doubt on the effectiveness of incarceration by claiming there is no association between imprisonment rates and crime reduction in the 50 states. Yet Professor James Fox, the oft-quoted criminologist from Northeastern University in Boston, admitted under questioning that the negative impact of incarceration on criminal activity is undeniable. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; and third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

Too Many Prisoners?

If the United States, with so many people in prison, still has one of the world's highest crime rates, doesn't this imply that prison does not work?

First, our crime rate, especially the property crime rate, isn't so high by international standards any more, though our violent crime rate remains far too high. Second, the nation had to imprison more people in recent years because it failed to do so earlier (although our ill-advised war on drugs inflamed the problem too).

It was not as if crime in the U.S. was rising so fast that the rate of imprisonment could not keep up. Rather, the rate of imprisonment fell first by deliberate design. By the time the United States began incarcerating more criminals in the mid-1970s, huge increases were required to bring the risk of imprisonment up to the crime rate. As Charles Murray notes, it's more difficult to reestablish a high rate of imprisonment relative to crime after the crime rate has escalated than to maintain a high risk of imprisonment from the outset. We experienced the same phenomenon in Texas, where crime rocketed up during the 1980s while expected punishment plunged.

Both U.S. and Texas experience show that imprisonment can stop a rising crime rate and then gradually push it down.

Public opinion strongly supports the use of prisons to give criminals their just desserts. The endorsement of punishment is relatively uniform across social groups. More than three-quarters of the public see punishment as the primary justification for sentencing. Still, the public holds out some hope for rehabilitation, too. About 60 percent express hope that services like psychological counseling, training, and education inside prison will correct personal shortcomings.

Punishment, though unpleasant and expensive, supplies the wrongdoer with a major incentive to reform. Even career criminals give up crime because they don't want to go back to prison.

Morgan Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For more information ...

Right-Sizing Justice: A Cost-Benefit Analysis. Three scholars examine the costs and benefits of prison terms for various crimes. (Manhattan Institute, September 1999, 26pp.)

Request PolicyBot documents #1367414 (text) and #1367415 (notes).