Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

No. 148
Monday, August 17, 1998
by Morgan O. Reynolds


The nationwide plunge in crime continues to astound scholars and journalists. "This is a humbling time for all crime analysts," says John J. DiIulio, celebrated criminologist and professor at Princeton University.1

"Courts have been handing out tougher punishment, and criminals know it."

The FBI's crime index has declined for six straight years, as Figure I shows. Every category of crime is lower than in 1991.2 The murder rate is only two-thirds of the 1991 rate, and violent crime declined 20 percent nationally between 1993 and 1997. Murders and robberies each dropped 9 percent last year alone. Overall, last year's 5 percent decline in violent crime represents a one-year benefit of $20 billion, based on the Department of Justice's estimate that the annual national cost of violent crime (plus drunk driving and arson) is $426 billion.

What explains the sudden decline in crime after a long rise? Better economic conditions? Cultural changes? A more convincing explanation is at hand: Courts have been handing out tougher punishment for crime, and potential criminals know and fear it.

Figure I - 1997 Crime Rates as a Percentage of 1991 Rates

Time was - and not so long ago - when many American courts endorsed the sociological proposition that democratic societies should stress rehabilitation of the offender. Punishment for punishment's sake was deemed a cruel and outmoded approach to crime prevention.

Even today some Americans fail to see the connection between new get-tough policies and recent improvements in the crime rate. "Crime keeps on falling, but prisons keep on filling," a recent New York Times headline declared.3 The headline writer's attempt at paradox is unwarranted. Crime is falling because prisons are filling.

The new get-tough attitude has brought about significant policy changes.

  • More lawbreakers (1.8 million) are behind bars today than ever before.
  • New laws have lengthened sentences and imposed tougher restrictions on parole.

"Every category of crime is lower than in 1991."

The lawbreaker of the 1990s cannot expect the comparatively gentle treatment the courts would have meted out a few years ago. Today, seeing that the law means business, many potential criminals decide to keep out of the law's way. In other words, they decide not to rape, steal, rob or kill.

That punishment deters crime is common sense. Observations of human behavior, the opinions of criminals themselves, simple facts about crime and punishment and sophisticated statistical studies all indicate that what matters most to prospective criminals is the certainty and severity of punishment. In other words, negative incentives matter in the business of crime.

This is not to diminish the fundamental and continuing importance of internal restraints: character, morality, virtuous habits.4 Though hardly a perfect substitute for these brakes on criminal behavior, punishment meted out by the justice system remains a vital complement to minimal morality.5 For years the U.S. criminal justice system lacked the will or the teeth to punish, especially in dealing with juveniles. But in the past few years deterrence has reasserted itself and has driven crime down.

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