Do Tough Sentences Reduce Crime?

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!” is a common sentiment expressed with regard to sentencing criminals. The purpose of punishment for those who violate the law is to repay the criminal’s debt to society, and more importantly, to deter future crimes. The idea that tougher sanctions will reduce crime seems like a reasonable enough plan, however, deterring crime is a much more complicated issue. In order to determine whether tough sentences reduce crime, one must examine the following:

The brutalization effect: The toughest sentence of all is the death penalty. If tougher sentences really reduce crime then surely the death penalty would reflect that correlation. However, instead of deterring crime, the death penalty can create it.

The brutalization effect, or the brutalization hypothesis, holds that capital punishment brutalizes or desensitizes society into believing that killing is okay in some circumstances. This hypothesis states that in jurisdictions where capital punishment is practiced, murder rates are higher. The brutalization effect also suggests that immediately following an execution, the murder rate will increase in the area where the execution took place. The national murder rate can even increase after a highly publicized execution. Several states, including California, have published studies that support the claims of the brutalization effect.

Prison and jail overcrowding: In recent years, tougher sentences have been implemented for numerous crimes, but especially for drug-related offenses. The rehabilitative approach has been set aside in favor of mandatory minimums for possession, selling, and trafficking. Instead of reducing the crime rate, these tougher sentences have only created additional problems.

Prisons and jails are overflowing with criminals, creating chaos, more in-house crime, and unsanitary conditions. New prisons and jails are popping up like Monopoly hotels, and many state and local governments are now looking for resources to fund home-incarceration programs, in order to try and relieve overcrowding.

The revolving door policy: If tough sentences reduce crime, then why is the criminal justice system a revolving door for some offenders? Unless offenders are sentenced to death row, life without parole, or die while incarcerated, they will be released from prison. Chances are, these criminals will offend again and become reincarcerated.

Regardless of the severity of sentences, criminals will reoffend because they become assimilated to prison culture. With little to no education, and slim to no chance of finding legitimate employment given their conviction history, many criminals find it much easier to reoffend and go back to a familiar lifestyle.

The intent of tougher sentences: When most offenders commit crimes they are not worried about the lengthy sentence that will be imposed on them for their actions. Many criminals commit crimes as a means of asserting their authority in their community, as a result of a deeper psychological and/or sociological issue, or as a means of survival. The average offender will not stand in a liquor store and hold a gun to the cashier’s head while contemplating the length of his potential sentence. Therefore, one has to wonder the true intent of implementing tougher sentences.

Is tougher sentencing a way to reassure the public? Is it a means of making lawmakers and criminal justice officials feel as if they are accomplishing something? These questions may not have clear answers, but one thing is certain. The very idea that tougher sentences will reduce crime implies that common criminals will ponder their sentence before acting, and this notion is almost laughable.

By examining the brutalization effect, prison and jail overcrowding, the revolving door policy, and the intent behind tougher sentencing, one can deduce that tough sentences do not reduce crime.
Rehabilitative and therapeutic approaches to sentencing should be implemented to reduce crime, instead of imposing tougher sentences and mandatory minimums, and then crossing one’s fingers that Offender X’s five years of kitchen duty will be enough to reform him.


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