Are long prison sentences an effective way to reduce crime?

long prison sentences

Harsh punishments and longer prison sentences are intended to be crime deterrence tools. World incarceration rates have increased. But is imprisonment an effective way to deter crime? Is there any other better alternative?

This debate is based on the LSE100 lectures by Nicola Lacey Professor of Law, Gender and Social Policy and David Soskice, Professor of Political Science and Economics (21 November 2016) as well as the lecture by Tim Newburn Professor of Criminology and Social Policy (7 November 2016). All these lectures are part of the module: “Is punishment the answer to crime?”.


Long prison sentences?

Crime rates, public opinion and public policy have historically interacted and produced changes in the levels of punitiveness in our societies. But do long prison sentences reduce crime? Many Western countries such as the US and the UK have increased the severity of punishments applied to many crimes over the last three decades. As a result of longer prison sentences and the criminalization process, total prison population has significantly increased. Imprisonment rates, nonetheless, varied significantly across countries. The US is the country with highest percentege of population in prisons (737 people per 100,000 habitants), followed by Russia (615) and Ukraine (350). Despite a growing trend, Western European countries have much lower incarceration rates.

Country Prison population Population per 100,000 Jail occupancy level % Un-sentenced prisoners % Women prisoners %
US 2,193,798 737 107.6 21.2 8.9
CHINA 1,548,498 118 N/A N/A 4.6
RUSSIA 874,161 615 79.5 16.9 6.8
BRAZIL 371,482 193 150.9 33.1 5.4
INDIA 332,112 30 139 70.1 3.7
MEXICO 214,450 196 133.9 43.2 5
UKRAINE 162,602 350 101.3 19.5 6.1
SOUTH AFRICA 158,501 334 138.6 27.5 2.1
POLAND 89,546 235 124.4 16.8 3
ENGLAND/WALES 80,002 148 112.7 16.4 5.5

SOURCE: International Centre for Prison Studies retrieved from BBC World Prison Populations report

incarceration rates

At the same time, crime statistics show that from the mid-1990s crime has steadily decreased in the US and most Western countries. Some studies show that there is a significan statistical correlation between longer prison sentences and decrease in crime. For instance Levitt (2004) argues that incarceration in the US can account for about one-third of the observed decline in crime. Spelman (2000) and Donohue & Siegelman (1998) estimate that prison expansion and longer jail sentences in the US accounts for between 10% to 27% of the crime drop.

However, a closer look at incarceration rates and crime statistics also reveals a more complicated picture and question the conclusion than long prison sentences reduce crime. In the US different states show different trajectories. For instance in both New York and Florida crime declined at similar rates, but while in Florida imprisonment rates grew, in New York they decreased. The Halliday Report (2001) estimated that the UK would required a 15% increase in prison population to reach a 1% reduction in crime. Some researchers argue that prisons do not always help rehabilitation. Prisons can contribute to the emergence of new criminal networks. They are often a hostile environment in which many violent crimes take place. Moreover, for those who have been in prison find securing a job afterwards can be a real challenge.  

Many experts suggest  alternative explanations to the reduction in crime and other ways reduce crime. Punitive justice may not be the only or best solution. Longer prison sentences and larger prisons entail a cost for society. It is important, then, to evaluate not only the effectivenes but also the efficiency of incarceration as a tool to reduce crime.

Alternative ways to reduce crime

These are some of different explanations and potential strategies to reduce crime without excessively relying in long prison sentences and increased incarceration rates:

  • Quality of imprisonment, although difficult to measure, likely plays an important role in rehabilitation of criminals.
  •  Policing also contributes to curb criminal activities. Increase in the size of police forces and the introduction of certain practices (e.g. prioritizing some crimes and areas, monitoring social media, etc) can help reduce crime.
  • Employment and the economic context impacts certain crimes. Crime is often an income source, full time employment and public services reduce the incentive to engage in certain criminal activities. 
  • Inequality and social exclusion are also considered risk factors that often trigger a criminal conduct.
  • Residential segregation is arguably another propiciatory factor for crime. Living in certain disadvantaged areas is a risk factor for young people.
  • Higher levels or education are often correlated with lower risk of engaging in criminal activity.

These factors tend to interact with each other and it is very difficult to determine accurately their individual impact on crime. Great economic and human resources are required to tackled these issues. Moreover their positive impact in terms of crime reduction is unlikely to be visible in the short term.

What do you think governments should prioritize in their fight against crime: longer prison sentences or alternative avenues? Is tough punishment a must in order to deter crime? Do you expect world incarceration rates to continue growing over the next few years?

Recommended readings:

  • Collins, D. (2009) "The Economics of a New Global Strategy" in Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. Collins (ed.) LSE IDEAS (report)
  • Halliday J. (2001) The Halliday Report  "Making Punishments Work: A Review of the Sentencing Framework for England & Wales" (report)
  • Lacey, N. and D. Soskice (2015) "Crime, punishment and segregation in the United States: The paradox of local democracy" Punishment & Society, 17(4): 454-481  (article)
  • Levitt, S.D. (2004) "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(1):163–190 (article)
  • Nelken, D. (2014) Comparative Criminal Justice: Beyond Ethnocentricism and Relativism" European Journal of Criminology 6(4): 291-311 (article)

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