Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

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


Despite continuing calls for a "better way,"65 what criminals need most is evidence that their crimes do not pay. As Robert Bidinotto says, neither criminals nor the rest of us "drive a car 100 miles an hour toward a brick wall, because we know what the consequences will be."66 Punishment works. Among other virtues, it gives the convicted a major incentive to reform. Even career criminals often give up crime because they don't want to go back to prison. The most successful remedy, if it were economical, would impose unpleasantness on offenders every time they harmed others; predatory action invariably would produce bad consequences.

How can criminals respect others' rights if those rights go unprotected? Criminals are rational, broadly speaking, though more impulsive, myopic and perverted in their goals than the general population. It is rare that the courts find a perpetrator "criminally insane." Strong evidence suggests that criminals respond predictably to incentives, whether it be coddling or harshness. The old prescription that punishment be swift, certain and severe is affirmed by modern social science.

"The old prescription that punishment be swift, certain and sever is affirmed by modern social science."

When expected punishment plunged during the 1960s and 1970s, crime rose astronomically. When expected punishment began rising in the 1980s and 1990s, crime leveled off and began falling. With the well-publicized success of no-nonsense police tactics in New York City, fewer observers today doubt that the criminal justice system can have a major impact on crime.67

Commonsense citizens, if not academics, will continue to support punishment as deterrence. And they will oppose the criminal justice experts who deny the individual criminal's responsibility for his actions and maintain that the criminal justice "system itself has a limited role in crime control and crime prevention."68

Economist Gordon Tullock's stark conclusion in his 1974 survey remains valid today: "We have an unpleasant method - deterrence - that works, and a pleasant method - rehabilitation - that (at least so far) never has worked. Under the circumstances, we have to opt either for the deterrence method or for a higher crime rate."69

Read Article as PDF