A wide-ranging newreport from the National Research Council on mass incarceration in the United States finds that lengthy prison sentences are not the best way to deter crime.
From 1972 to 2012, the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled as America’s courts began handing out longer sentences (particularly for drug crimes), according to the report, which was commissioned by the Justice Department.
Drawing from past research, the report argues that more severe sentences don’t effectively deter crime, pointing to these past studies:
- An analysis of a federal program in Virginia that imposed more severe punishments for gun crimes found that “the threat of enhanced sentences had no apparent deterrent effect,” the report said.
- Studies found that teens didn’t commit significantly fewer crimes after they turned 18, even though the severity of punishments increased. One analysis reported “an immediate decline in crime, as predicted, but it was very small and not statistically significant,” according to the National Research Council report.
- A California law requiring minimum prison sentences of 25 years for three-strike offenders had only a minimal deterrent effect, studies showed. One study found the law created a 2% reduction in the felony crime rate at most, limited only to people with two strikes. Another report did find that the law was a deterrent, but concluded that it wasn’t enough to justify increased costs of incarceration.
“Evidence is limited on the crime prevention effects of most of the policies that contributed to the post-1973 increase in incarceration rates. Nevertheless, the evidence base demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure,” the report noted.
Instead, the report argues that the certainty and imminence of punishment are more likely to deter crime than length. In a Hawaii program, for example, offenders on probation who faced the certain, but brief, punishment of one to two days of confinement for failing drug tests had far fewer positive tests than offenders who didn’t face that punishment.
Overall, the report recommends that federal and state officials alter criminal justice policies to reduce nationwide incarceration rates “[g]iven the small crime prevention effects of long prison sentences and the possibly high financial, social, and human costs of incarceration.”
Specifically, the report urges federal and state governments to reconsider mandatory minimum sentencing policies and long sentences. Additionally, the report calls for more research on the relationship between sentence lengths and deterrence.
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