Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

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

If Punishment Deters, Why Are So Many People in Prison?

Figure III - Crime and Punishment Selected Years%2C 1950-96

"The U.S. has had to imprison more people in recent years because it failed to do so earlier."

If the United States, with so many people in prison, has one of the world's highest crime rates, does this imply that prison does not work? Scholar Charles Murray has examined this question and concluded that the answer is no.30 Instead, the nation has had to imprison more people in recent years because it failed to do so earlier. Murray compared the record of the risk of imprisonment in England to that in the United States.

  • In England the risk of going to prison for committing a crime fell by about 80 percent over a period of 40 years - and the English crime rate rose gradually.
  • By contrast, the risk of going to prison in the U.S. fell by 64 percent in just 10 years starting in 1961 - and the U.S. crime rate shot up.

In the United States, it was not a matter of crime's increasing so fast that the rate of imprisonment could not keep up. Rather, the rate of imprisonment began to fall first. By the time the U.S. began incarcerating more criminals in the mid-1970s, huge increases were required to bring the risk of imprisonment up to the crime rate. It is more difficult to reestablish a high rate of imprisonment after the crime rate has escalated than to maintain a high risk of imprisonment from the outset, Murray concluded.

However, the American experience showed that it is possible for imprisonment to stop a rising crime rate and then gradually begin to push it down. The American crime rate peaked in 1980, a few years after the risk of imprisonment reached its nadir. Since then, as the risk of imprisonment has increased, with few exceptions the rates of serious crimes have retreated in fits and starts to levels of 20 or more years ago.

"Expected punishment" is a measure for comparing the risk of prison in one year with that in another.31 Expected punishment calculates the prison time a criminal can expect for committing a serious crime, given the likelihood of being apprehended, of being prosecuted if apprehended, of being convicted if prosecuted and of going to prison if convicted when the median prison sentence for that crime is taken into account. Figure III shows the inverse correlation between expected punishment and the crime rate since the 1950s.

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