NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Does Punishment Reduce Crime?

October 3, 2000

Does punishment reduce crime? Yes, according to the NCPA's Morgan Reynolds, because punishment converts criminal activity from a paying proposition to a nonpaying proposition, at least sometimes, and people respond accordingly. This commonsense proposition has begun to be noticed by experts who may disagree on other aspects of criminal justice.

  • John Lott, senior research scholar at Yale Law School and author of More Guns, Less Crime, said the drop in crime was due to "Lots of reasons -- increases in arrest rates, conviction rates, prison sentence lengths."
  • Daniel Nagin, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor of public policy critical of Lott's work on concealed carry laws, says in The Handbook of Crime and Punishment, "The combined deterrent and incapacitation effect generated by the collective actions of the police, courts, and prison system is very large."
  • University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt estimated that for each 10 percent rise in a state's prison population, robberies fall 7 percent, assault and burglary shrink 4 percent each, auto theft and larceny decline 3 percent each, rape falls 2 1/2 percent and murder drops 1 1/2 percent.
  • On average, 10 to 15 nondrug felonies are eliminated for each additional prisoner locked up.

However, if the United States, with so many people in prison, has one of the world's highest crime rates, doesn't this imply prison does not work? Scholar Charles Murray says the nation has had to imprison more people in recent years because it failed to do so earlier (the war on drugs also plays a role).

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, Murray concludes.

Source: Morgan Reynolds (NCPA), "Does Punishment Work To Reduce Crime," testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, October 2, 2000.


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