Harsh Punishment Backfires, Researcher Says

Social, Job Skills Reduce Recidivism

Man in jail cell with arms on bars
Josh Mitchell/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Currently, the U.S. leads the world in the rate of incarceration. The current numbers show that 612 people per 100,000 residents age 18 or older are imprisoned. 

According to some criminal justice experts, the current prison system puts too much emphasis on harsh punishment and not enough on rehabilitation and it simply does not work.

The current system only provides a breeding ground for more aggressive and violent behavior, according to Joel Dvoskin, PhD of the University of Arizona and author of "Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending."

Aggression Breeds Aggression

"Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviors, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want," Dvoskin said.

It is his belief that behavior modification and social learning principles can work inside prison just as they do outside.

Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment

In criminological research performed by Valerie Wright, Ph.D., Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project, it was determined that certainty of punishment, rather than the severity of punishment is more likely to deter criminal behavior.

For example, if a city announces that police will be out in force looking for drunk drivers during a holiday weekend, it would likely increase the number of people who decide not to risk drinking and driving.

Severity of punishment attempts to scare potential criminals because the punishment that they could receive is not worth the risk.

This is the bases behind why states have adopted the tough policies such as "Three Strikes." 

The concept behind severe punishments assumes that the criminal is rational enough to weigh out the consequences before committing the crime. 

However, as Wright points out, since half of the criminals that are locked up in U.S. prisons were drunk or high on drugs at the time of the offense, it is unlikely that they had the mental capacity to logically asses the consequences of their actions.

Unfortunately, because of a shortage of police per capita and prison overcrowding, most crimes do not result in arrest or criminal incarceration.

"Clearly, enhancing the severity of punishment will have little impact on people who do not believe they will be apprehended for their actions." says Wright.

Do Longer Sentences Improve Public Safety?

Studies have shown that longer sentences result in higher rates of recidivism.

According to Wright, accumulated data of 50 studies going back as far as 1958 on a total of 336,052 offenders with various criminal offenses and background showed the following:

Offenders who averaged 30 months in prison had a recidivism rate of 29 percent.

Offenders who averaged 12.9 months in prison had a recidivism rate of 26 percent.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics did a study tracking 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

    The research team theorizes that although offender services and programs may have a direct effect on desistance, individuals must decide independently to transform themselves into ex-offenders.

    However, the numbers do support Wright's argument that longer sentences result in higher rates of recidivism.

    Reaccessing the Economics of Current Crime Policies

    Both Wright and Dvoskin agree that the current money spent on incarceration has drained valuable resources and has not been effective in making communities safer.

    Wright points to a study done in 2006 that compared the cost of community drug treatment programs vs. the cost of incarcerating drug offenders.

    According to the study, a dollar spent on treatment in prison yields about six dollars of savings, whereas a dollar spent in community-based treatment yields nearly $20 in costs savings.

    Wright estimates that a savings $16.9 billion annually could be saved by a 50 percent reduction in the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders.

    Dvoskin feels that the rising prison population with the corresponding lack of increase in prison staff has reduced the ability of prison systems to supervise work programs that allow prisoners to build skills. 

    "This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison," Dvoskin said.

    Therefore, the priority should be placed on decreasing prison populations, he said: "This can be done by paying more attention to those with the highest risk of violent behavior rather than focusing on lesser crimes, such as minor drug offenses."

    Conclusion

    By reducing the number of non-violent prisoners, it would free up the necessary money to invest in detecting criminal behavior which would increase the certainty of punishment and also allow for more effective programs that could help in reducing recidivism.

    Source: Workshop: "Using Social Science to Prevent Violent Crime," Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, University of Arizona College of Medicine Saturday, Aug. 8, Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

    "Deterrence in Criminal Justice," Valerie Wright, Ph.D., The Sentencing Project.