Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

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

Public Opinion

Public opinion strongly supports the increased use of prisons to give criminals their just desserts. The endorsement of punishment is relatively uniform across all groups.60 More than three-quarters of the public see punishment as the primary justification for sentencing. More than 70 percent believe that incapacitation is the only sure way to prevent future crimes, and more than three-quarters believe that the courts are too easy on criminals.61 Three-quarters favor the death penalty for murder.62

Still, the public holds out some hope for rehabilitation, too. About 60 percent express hope that rehabilitative services like psychological counseling, training and education inside prison will correct personal shortcomings. Such sentiments are more likely to be expressed on behalf of young offenders than adults, and by nonwhite respondents. In a national poll, the Los Angeles Times asked, "Where does government need to make a greater effort these days: in trying to rehabilitate criminals who commit violent crimes or in trying to punish and put away criminals who commit violent crimes?"63 The largest group, 49 percent, answered punish, 32 percent said rehabilitate, 8 percent said "both, equally," and the remaining 11 percent said they didn't know or offered another solution.

"Public opinion strongly supports punishment, but still holds out some hope for rehabilitation."

The public's soft spot for rehabilitation cannot be dismissed out of hand. Each of us is a member of society, and we obviously owe much of what we are to others who have influenced, helped, guided and civilized us. But there is reason to be skeptical of any proposals for defeating crime and criminals that do not take into account individual will and the motivations of a criminal or potential criminal.64 A criminal must become dissatisfied with his or her life and desire change. A criminal must in the end accept full responsibility for his or her actions.

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