Does Punishment Deter?

Policy Backgrounders | Crime

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


  1. Quoted in Fox Butterfield, "Crime Fighting's About-face," New York Times, January 19, 1997, p. 1E; also see Fox Butterfield, "Reason for Dramatic Drop in Crime Puzzles the Experts," New York Times, March 29, 1998, p. 14Y.
  2. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1996 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997); FBI, Uniform Crime Reports 1997 Preliminary Annual Release, May 17, 1998.
  3. New York Times, September 28, 1997, Section 4, p. 1. Ironically, many criminologists fail to credit the role of the criminal justice system in the increase or decline in crime. For example, see Geoffrey A. Campbell, "Putting a Crimp in Crime: Experts Differ Over Reasons for Falling Rates of Serious Offenses," ABA Journal, May 1997, p. 24; and "Crime Is Down All Over," New York Times, October 14, 1997.
  4. While external restraints are necessary complements to internal restraints, they also are, to some extent, substitutes for each other. As Edmund Burke wrote, "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters," cited in Morgan O. Reynolds, Crime By Choice: An Economic Analysis (Dallas: Fisher Institute, 1985), p. 197.
  5. As Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne) wrote, "A man that'd expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic; but a man that thinks men can be tu-rrned into angels be an iliction is called a rayformer an' remains at large." Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th edition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), p. 603.
  6. Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker, Burglars on the Job (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994), p. 8; also see Eugene H. Methvin, "Mugged by Reality," Policy Review, July/August 1997, pp. 32-38, especially p. 34 describing sociologist James A. Inciardi's study of 611 high-crime youngsters in Miami.
  7. Wright and Decker, p. 54.
  8. Ibid., p. 91.
  9. Ibid., p. 113.
  10. Ibid., p. 128.
  11. Ibid., pp. 131, 142; also see J. Wilson and A. Abrahamse, "Does Crime Pay?" Justice Quarterly 9, 1992, pp. 359-77; and Morgan O. Reynolds, "Crime and Punishment in America: 1997 Update," National Center for Policy Analysis, NCPA Policy Report No. 209, September 1997.
  12. Wright and Decker, pp. 196-97. Broadly speaking, the rational choice approach to crime assumes that "offenders seek to benefit themselves by their criminal behavior; that this involves the making of decisions and of choices, however rudimentary on occasion these processes might be; and that these processes exhibit a measure of rationality, albeit constrained by limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information." Derek B. Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, eds., The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986), p. 1. To attribute the power of reason to human beings does not deal with the "ultimate springs and goals of action, but with the means applied for the attainment of an end sought. However unfathomable the depths may be from which an impulse or instinct emerges, the means which man chooses for its satisfaction are determined by a rational consideration of expense and success." Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, 3d revised ed. (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1963), p. 16.
  13. Wright and Decker, p. 211.
  14. Ibid., p. 8.
  15. Brian Forst, "Prosecution and Sentencing," in James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, eds., Crime (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1995), p. 376.
  16. We must distinguish between the criminal way of thinking, which is long-run, and criminal acts, which are short-run and usually involve quick processes. Most criminological theories concentrate on factors disposing individuals to criminal attitudes and behavior and ignore the situational variables that even for murders and rapes always display signs of calculation and rationality of means. For more on these issues, see Comish and Clarke; also see Stanton E. Samenow, "The Basic Myths about Criminals," in Robert James Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice? The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1994), pp. 47-58; David Kelley, "Stalking the Criminal Mind," also in Bidinotto, pp. 34-46; and Morgan O. Reynolds, "Crime-Stoppers' Textbooks," Reason, August/September 1995, pp. 58-62.
  17. Samenow, "The Basic Myths about Criminals," p. 48. Some economists, notably Nobel laureate Gary S. Becker, argue that whether behavior is habitual, "irrational" or rational is largely immaterial because the basic incentive propositions of economics like the law of demand (if cost rises, less of the activity is demanded) always hold.
  18. Initially several sociologists investigated the issue of whether the death penalty deterred murder more effectively than life imprisonment. These early studies found no deterrent effect, but they were very crude in technique. They simply separated states into those that had the death penalty on the books and those that did not, without accounting for the chances that it would be imposed. See Gordon Tullock, "Does Punishment Deter Crime?" The Public Interest 36, Summer 1974, pp. 103-11. Moreover, the tests were simple two-variable correlations that did not hold constant other differences that might affect murder rates such as age, race, illegitimacy, income and degree of urbanism. This was an era in which computers, large data sets and sophistication in multivariate techniques were uncommon. Perhaps the first econometric test of the deterrence hypothesis was done by University of Columbia economics graduate student Arleen Smigel Leibowitz in her 1965 master's thesis under Gary Becker. See Gary S. Becker, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," Journal of Political Economy 76, 1968: pp. 169-217. In her single-equation, multiple regression analysis of the FBI's seven Index crimes, she took into account the average length of the prison sentence and the percentage of crimes cleared by prison admissions, as well as a number of sociological and economic differences among the states. She found an unambiguous deterrent effect of prison on each crime. Since then, numerous studies by economists have confirmed her general results, although the data and models have varied enormously. Meanwhile, sociologists who set out to show that Crime, Punishment and Deterrence (New York: Elsevier, 1975), Jack Gibbs' empirical work in support of a deterrent effect, was wrong ended up agreeing with him. In the process they expanded and improved on Gibbs' work, independently verifying the initial work of the economists.
  19. Isaac Ehrlich, "Participation in Illegitimate Activities: An Economic Analysis," Journal of Political Economy 81, 1973, pp. 521-64, reprinted in William Landes and Gary S. Becker, eds., Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974). While Ehrlich's single-equation estimates showed lower effects by the justsice system on violent crime than on property crime, his multi-equation estimates showed similar effects on both. A single-equation model relates a lefthand-side variable (or dependent variable like crime rates) to a set of righthand-side variables (or independent variables like arrest clearance rates, percent of teen-age males in the population, etc.). A multi-equation model consists of two or more such equations still purported to be an integrated model; for example, a second equation might specify a righthand-side variable in equation one like arrest clearance rate as a lefthand-side variable in equation two with righthand-side variables like number of law enforcement employees per 1,000 population.
  20. Steven D. Levitt, "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation," Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1996, pp. 319-51; also Steven R. Hanke, "Incarceration Is a Bargain," Wall Street Journal, September 23, 1996.
  21. Llad Phillips, "The Criminal Justice System: Its Technology and Inefficiencies," Journal of Legal Studies 10, June 1981, pp. 363-80.
  22. Michael K. Block and Vernon E. Gerety, "Some Experimental Evidence on Differences between Student and Prisoner Reactions to Monetary Penalties and Risk," Journal of Legal Studies 24, January 1995, pp. 123-38.
  23. Ibid., p. 138.
  24. Albert J. Reiss Jr., and Jeffrey A. Roth, eds., Understanding and Preventing Violence (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1993), p. 6; also see Jeffrey Grogger, "Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment," Economic Inquiry, April 1991, pp. 297-335, and John M. Heineke, "Crime, Deterrence and Choice: Testing the Rational Behavior Hypothesis," American Sociological Review, April 1988, pp. 303-05.
  25. Itzhak Goldberg and Frederick C. Nold, "Does Reporting Deter Burglars? An Empirical Analysis of Risk and Return in Crime," Review of Economics and Statistics 62, August 1980, pp. 424-31.
  26. Ernest van den Haag, "Making Crime Cost and Lawfulness Pay," Society 19, July/August 1982, p. 22.
  27. Ralph Adam Fine, "Plea Bargaining: An Unnecessary Evil," in Bidinotto, Criminal Justice? p. 86; also see R. Tarling, "Editorial: The Effect of Imprisonment on Crime," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 157: 2, 1994, pp. 173-76.
  28. Donald E. Lewis, "The General Deterrent Effect of Longer Sentences," British Journal of Criminology 26, January 1986, pp. 47-62; also see the reviews by D. J. Pyle in The Economics of Crime and Law Enforcement (London: Macmillan, 1983) and Cutting the Costs of Crime (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1995).
  29. Vijay K. Mathur, "Economics of Crime: An Investigation of the Deterrent Hypothesis for Urban Areas," Review of Economics and Statistics 60, August 1978, pp. 459-66.
  30. This section is based on Charles A. Murray, "Does Prison Work?" Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA Health and Welfare Unit, Choice in Welfare No. 38, July 1997.
  31. For a discussion of expected punishment, see Reynolds, "Crime and Punishment in America: 1997 Update."
  32. Paul E. Tracy, Marvin E. Wolfgang and Robert M. Figlio, Delinquency Careers in Two Birth Cohorts (New York: Plenum Press, 1990).
  33. 33 See, for example, Samuel Yochelson and Stanton E. Samenow, The Criminal Personality: Vol. I, A Profile for Change (New York: Jason Aronson, 1976); Steven Klein and Michael Caggiano, Policy Implications and Recidivism (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1986); Glenn D. Walters, Criminal Lifestyle: Patterns of Serious Criminal Conduct (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1990); and Edward Zamble and Vernon L. Quinsey, The Criminal Recidivism Process (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  34. Methvin, "Mugged by Reality," p.36.
  35. Ibid., p. 36.
  36. Ibid., p. 35.
  37. Charles A. Murray and Louis A. Cox, Beyond Probation: Juvenile Corrections and the Chronic Delinquent (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1979).
  38. Ann Dryden Witte, "Some Thoughts on the Future of Research on Crime and Delinquency," Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency, 1994, pp. 513-25; and H. Tauchen, A. D. Witte and H. Griesinger, "Criminal Deterrence: Revisiting the Issue with a Birth Cohort," Review of Economics and Statistics 76, August 1994, pp. 399-412.
  39. Witte also found that either attending school or holding a job was equally effective in decreasing criminal activity. Whether a student graduated appeared to have no independent effect on crime; rather, it was involvement in legitimate activities that mattered. Another study by G. Roger Jarjoura of Northeastern University also found that dropping out of school per se is not criminogenic. Criminology 2, 1993, pp. 149-71.
  40. Douglas A. Smith and Patrick R. Gartin, "Specifying Specific Deterrence: The Influence of Arrest on Future Criminal Activity," American Sociological Review 54, February 1989, pp. 94-105.
  41. Murray, "Does Prison Work?" p. 26.
  42. Anne L. Schneider, Deterrence and Juvenile Crime: Results from a National Policy Experiment (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990).
  43. Joan Petersilia and Elizabeth Piper Deschenes, "Perceptions of Punishment: Inmates and Staff Rank the Severity of Prison vs. Intermediate Sanctions," The Prison Journal 74, September 1994, pp. 306-28.
  44. Firing Line miniseries on crime, Public Broadcast System, taped October 4, 1994.
  45. Bidinotto, Criminal Justice? p. 15.
  46. Skeptics should consult Kendall J. Bryant, Michael Windle and Stephen G. West, eds., The Science of Prevention: Methodological Advances from Alcohol and Substance Abuse Research (Washington: American Psychological Association, 1997), which "challenges prevention researchers across many fields to develop general principles that integrate an understanding of risk and protective factors with the delivery of preventive interventions" (p. xi) and claims that "a new science of prevention is evolving rapidly" (p. xviii).
  47. Andrew Peyton Thomas, Crime and the Sacking of America (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1995), p. 107.
  48. Robert Martinson, "What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform," The Public Interest, Spring 1974, pp. 22-54; a more extensive version appeared in Douglas Lipton, Robert Martinson and Judith Wilks, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment (New York: Praeger, 1975).
  49. See Steven P. Lab and John T. Whitehead, "From Nothing Works to the Appropriate Works: The Latest Stop on the Search for the Secular Grail," Criminology 28, August 1990, p. 405.
  50. Mark W. Lipsey, "Juvenile Delinquency Intervention," pp. 63-84 in H. S. Bloom, D. S. Cordray, and R. J. Light, eds., Lessons from Selected Program and Policy Areas (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988); D. A. Andrews et al., "Does Correctional Treatment Work? A Clinically Relevant and Psychologically Informed Meta-Analysis," Criminology 28: 3, 1990, pp. 369-97; Patricia Van Voorhis et al., "Evaluating Interventions with Violent Offenders: A Guide for Practitioners and Policymakers," Federal Probation 50: 2, 1995, pp. 17-27; and U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Delinquency Prevention Works: OJJDP Program Summary, November 1995.
  51. Samuel Yochelson and Stanton E. Samenow, The Criminal Personality, Vols. I, II, III (New York: Jason Aronson, 1976, 1977, 1986). Also see Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Criminal Mind (New York: Times Books, 1984).
  52. Quoted in Reynolds, Crime By Choice, p. 67.
  53. Peter W. Greenwood and Susan Turner, "Evaluation of the Paint Creek Youth Center: A Residential Program for Serious Delinquents," Criminology 31, May 1993, pp. 263-79; and Joan Petersilia and Susan Turner in Evaluating Intensive Supervision in Probation/Parole: Results of a Nationwide Experiment, May 1993, National Institute of Justice.
  54. John Wooldredge, Jennifer Hartman, Edward Latessa and Stephen Holmes, "Effectiveness of Culturally Specific Community Treatment for African American Juvenile Felons," Crime and Delinquency 40, October 1994, pp. 589-98.
  55. Malcolm W. Klein, "Street Gang Cycles," in James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, eds., Crime (San Francisco: ICS, 1995), pp. 234, 235.
  56. Even worse, "a University of Southern California evaluation of a gang prevention program found that the program was holding the gang together and sustaining its violent crimes. When the program lost funding, the gang broke up and its crime rate declined." Lawrence W. Sherman, "Crime Prevention's Bottom Line," Wall Street Journal, August 6, 1997, p. A15.
  57. Ibid.
  58. For the full report online, see; or see Lawrence W. Sherman et al., Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising, A Report of the U. S. Congress, NCJ 165366, February 1997.
  59. Cited by Thomas, Crime and the Sacking of America, p. 121.
  60. Richard C. McCorkle, "Research Note: Punish and Rehabilitate? Public Attitudes Toward Six Common Crimes," Crime and Delinquency 39: 2, 1993, pp. 240-52.
  61. Ibid.; and BJS Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1993, pp. 194-95.
  62. The Harris Poll, cited in BJS Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1996, p. 159.
  63. McCorkle, "Research Note: Punish and Rehabilitate?" and Sourcebook 1993, p. 196.
  64. Melvin D. Barger, "Crime: The Unsolved Problem," in Bidinotto, Criminal Justice? p. 32.
  65. For example, see "Violent and Irrational-and That's Just the Policy," The Economist, June 8, 1996, pp. 23-4.
  66. Cato Policy Report, January/February 1996, p. 7.
  67. George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (New York: Free Press, 1996); William J. Bratton, "Cutting Crime and Restoring Order: What America Can Learn from New York's Finest," Heritage Lectures, No. 573, 1997, Heritage Foundation; William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio Jr. and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Povertyand How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 128-30.
  68. American Bar Association, Criminal Justice in Crisis, November 1988, p. 51, cited in Bidinotto, Criminal Justice? p. 294.
  69. Tullock, "Does Punishment Deter Crime?" p. 110.

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