Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

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


Does Punishment Deter Juvenile Crime?

Juvenile offenders, due to their youth and immaturity, pose a special challenge to the criminal justice system. In the past, many judges and social workers have argued for less stringent treatment of such offenders, with "prevention" taking precedence over detention. Thus the emphasis tends to be on so-called root causes and nonpunitive interventions. The results fail to bear out the hopes invested in such an approach. Researchers note a close connection between lack of punishment and the forming of criminal habits. They also note the effectiveness of punishment, especially for juveniles.

"Researchers note a close connection between lack of punishment and the forming of criminal habits."

Crime as a Habit. In one of the most comprehensive studies following offenders and the criminal justice system over time, University of Pennsylvania criminologist Marvin Wolfgang and his colleagues found that hard-core predators were a relatively small group of repeaters who rarely were punished.32

The Wolfgang group compiled arrest records up to the 30th birthday for two groups consisting of every male born and reared in Philadelphia in 1945 and in 1958. Their study, published in 1990, found that in both groups about 35 percent were arrested at least once for a nontraffic offense and nearly half of these never tangled with the law again. The group that turned 30 years old in 1988, however, was guilty of much more serious crime than the one that turned 30 in 1975. The two groups had two things in common: the hard-core predators were few in number and were rarely punished:

  • Just 7 percent in each cohort (the top 20 percent of those arrested at least once) committed two-thirds of all violent crimes, including three out of four rapes and robberies.
  • Members of this hard-core group in each cohort not only had five or more criminal arrests before age 18 but also continued committing felonies and got away with a dozen crimes for every arrest made.
  • In 85 percent of the arrests for the 1958 group and 83 percent for the 1945 group, no charges were brought.

"There is an inverse correlation between expected punishment and the crime rate."

Many other studies of individuals have reached two major conclusions: (1) a majority of serious crime is committed by habitual criminals and (2) punishment works, especially for juveniles.33

The situation in Denmark presents a contrast. Psychologist Sarnoff Mednick of the University of Southern California compared the records of thousands of Danish criminals with those in the Philadelphia study to confirm the effectiveness of punishment. He found that only 14 percent of those arrested four and five times in Philadelphia were punished, compared with 60 percent of those in Denmark.34

The Effectiveness of Punishing Juveniles. The Wolfgang-Mednick research does more than point to a problem. It suggests the solution. Wolfgang's study found that, where court penalties were meted out in Philadelphia, they worked. For the group born in 1958, there was a .52 probability of rearrest if a court penalty was imposed. If the offender was handled more leniently, the arrest probability was .62.

"The big problem with our handling of criminals in America is that they're not punished," wrote Mednick. "People are usually surprised to hear that, because of all our prisons. But the fact is, by the time a guy makes his way to jail, that's very often his first punishment. And he usually has committed 15 offenses by then. He might have been arrested 10 times. In Philadelphia, the kids committed large numbers of offenses, and serious ones, and nothing happened. They just laughed. Our laws provide severe punishments, butthey deter not the criminals but the judges. They [the judges] don't want to throw a kid who's done some little thing in jail, so they just let him go."35

"Studies conclude that (1) a majority of serious crime is committed by habitual criminals and (2) punishment works, especially for juveniles."

As Eugene Methvin wrote, "a troublesome youngster typically has 10 or 12 contacts with the criminal justice system and many more undiscovered offenses before he ever receives any formal 'adjudication,' or finding of guilt, from a judge."36

Charles Murray and Louis Cox studied 317 young criminals in Chicago during the mid-1970s.37 The typical member of the sample was arrested at age 12 and then arrested another 13 times over the next three-and-a-half years before being committed to the Illinois Department of Corrections. The evaluation experiments revealed a strong "suppression effect"; that is, delinquents sentenced to jail and stronger interventions subsequently committed less crime than their counterparts who received softer, alternative treatment.

Economist Ann Dryden Witte pointed out that the police now routinely enforce laws against drunk driving, and courts usually punish offenders. As a result, drunk driving and the resources needed to enforce these laws have declined.38 The same principles, she concluded, apply to predatory offenses: "Generally, criminals do respond to incentives, and altering these incentives can affect the level of crime and delinquency." Witte reexamined Wolfgang's Philadelphia cohort data for 19-to-26-year-olds in the 1945 cohort and found "robust evidence for a general deterrent effect flowing from criminal justice, especially police, resources." The results also suggested that "general deterrence may be strongest for individuals with limited previous contact with the criminal justice system."39

Does Early Punishment Hurt or Help? Some sociologists believe that punishment has a "labeling" effect that outweighs the unpleasantness of incarceration and that this effect increases rather than decreases future criminal activity. Supposedly a convicted person says, "Well, they've labeled me a criminal, so I might as well commit more crime." Yet little evidence supports this theory. University of Maryland researchers Douglas Smith and Patrick Gartin studied the 325 males who were born in Racine, Wis., in 1949, lived there continuously until age 25 and had at least one police contact on criminal suspicion. They found evidence much more consistent with "specific deterrence" than with labeling. "Specific deterrence" means that an initial contact with the criminal justice system caused most young people to desist from criminal acts. Smith and Gartin also found that 68 of the group, or 20 percent, had six or more arrests, an indication that the worst of the worst commit most of the crimes.40

"An initial contact with the criminal justice system causes most young people to desist from criminal acts."

Likewise, in his study of criminal justice in England, Charles Murray found that in 1954 the system operated on the assumption that the best way to keep crime down was to intervene early and sternly. Crime was very low, and the number of youths picked up by the police went down by about half as children matured from their early to their late teens. Today, however, a widespread assumption in England (as in the United States) is that youthful offenders need patience more than punishment. England's traditionally low crime rate is now very high, and in 1994 the number of youths picked up by the police roughly tripled from the early to the late teens.41

Alternatives to Incarceration. The need to hold the individual juvenile criminal responsible for his actions does not make incarceration the sole option. For example, Anne L. Schneider found in six random-assignment experiments involving 876 adjudicated (convicted) delinquents in six American cities that victim restitution and incarceration both lowered reoffending while probation did not.42 Victim restitution meant monetary restitution, community service or work to repay the victims. At some level of intensity and duration, inmates view intensive probation - much closer surveillance than the usual probation - as no less severe than prison time.43


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