If policymakers want a safer public, research shows that increasing the certainty of jail time for criminal activity works better than imposing longer prison sentences.
“Contrary to deterrence ideology and ‘get tough’ rhetoric, the bulk of research on the deterrent effects of harsher sentences fails to support these assertions” that locking people up longer will increase public safety, according to The Sentencing Project.
Sentencing typically has several goals, including punishment, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
The deterrence theory assumes people are rational actors who consider the consequences of their behavior before deciding to commit a crime. But The Sentencing Project found often this is not the case, since “half of all state prisoners were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their offense.” Therefore, it is unlikely persons are deterred by the inevitability or severity of punishment due to their diminished capacity. Another problem in assessing deterrence is that would-be offenders first have to be aware of consequences prior to committing a crime.
“Potential offenders are also unlikely to be aware of modifications to sentencing policies, thus diminishing any deterrent effect,” The Sentencing Project stressed. “People who perceive that sanctions are more certain tend to be less likely to engage in criminal activity.”
“Half of all state prisoners were
under the influence of drugs or alcohol
at the time of their offense”
The Sentencing Project study analyzed the difference between an offender’s length of time of prison and recidivism. It found longer prison sentences may relate to a three percent increase in recidivisms.
“Offenders who spent an average of 30 months in prison had a recidivism rate of 29 percent, compared to a 26 percent rate among prisoners serving an average sentence of 12.9 months,” The Sentencing Project reported. Incarceration, versus remaining in the community, was linked to a seven percent increase in recidivism. “When prison sentences are relatively short, offenders are more likely to maintain their ties to family, employers, and their community, all of which promote successful reentry into society.”
“Conversely, when prisoners serve longer sentences they are more likely to become institutionalized, lose pro-social contacts in the community, and become removed from legitimate opportunities, all of which promote recidivism,” The Sentencing Project found.
In his 1950 book, The San Quentin Story, then-warden, Clinton T. Duffy wrote: “For some first offenders, 24 hours in San Quentin would be – and is – a nightmare, and is thus a sufficient deterrent. For others the critical point comes in a month, or a year, or years. But there is a saturation point in practically every man’s servitude beyond which every additional hour is wasted and destructive punishment.”
The Sentencing Project’s findings suggest that reduced sentences may contribute to lower rates of recidivism. Research into evidence-based practices have caused some policymakers to look into the “practicality of current sentencing policies and over-reliance on incarceration.”
It was estimated that a 50 percent reduction in the number of people locked up for non-violent offenses could save taxpayers nearly $17 billion annually, without putting public safety at risk.
“Policies such as California’s Three Strikes law or mandatory minimums that increase imprisonment not only burden state budgets, but also fail to enhance public safety,” The Sentencing Project concluded.