Monday, September 14, 2009


So much of sentencing is based on the idea that if you threaten to hurt someone sufficiently badly, then they will not commit the offence. This is also the favoured reasoning for pub-experts who complain that sentences just aren't long enough.

There are two facts that impact on this belief, neither one being obvious. Firstly, that the length of prison sentences is at the highest it has ever been in history. Secondly, and more fundamentally, deterrence only works with putative criminals if they believed that they would be caught. If you believe that you will get away with your crime, then the potential sentence is utterly irrelevant.

And guess what? Most criminals are drunk, desperate or very confident. The possible sentence for their crime is of as much interest to them as the movements of the Hang Seng index; they either believe that they won't get caught, or are so desperate for the next beg of smack that they don't care.

And this is before we take into account the low clear-up rates for some crimes. It is quite rational to believe that you can burgle your neighbours and not get caught - the clear-up rate is pathetic.

Given these factors, to argue that if sentences were longer, or if prison were 'tougher', then crime would fall is a fallacy of monumental proportions. But since when has cogent thought ever been the basis for penal policy? Or pub-debate?


  1. Off topic Ben but have been reading the book on Ruth Ellis, how they ever hung that woman is beyond me. Today 'had the same thing happened her sentence would have been very different.


  2. Actually economists have good evidence that deterrence works to a greater degree than is obvious. Even spur-of-the-moment crimes (such as murder in a rage) show statistically significant response to sentencing. Econometrics is the science of using economics to predict behaviour that is not related to money and business, and these are the sort of things it looks at.

    However with the second section you are absolutely right. If they don't think they will be caught then the sentence becomes meaningless. If crime detection rates are improved then sentences can be reduced and still the deterrence will be greater.

  3. Yes, I am all for rehabilitation and appreciate there isn't enough of it at the moment, but on the other hand, the burglar isn't climbing in people's windows whilst he's in prison. What do you suggest we do with the persistent prolific offenders who are career criminals and show no inclination to stop?


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