We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Skip main navigation

Punishment severity and crime

Punishment severity and crime
So far, I kept saying we are interested in whether imposing more severe punishment can reduce crime, and if so, by how much. But often times, it’s not straightforward what it means by imposing more severe punishment. Part of the problem is that there are different types of punishment. For example, if you break a criminal law in the United States, depending on which law you broke, you may be subject to active sentencing in prison, fines, probation, community service, drug counseling, or some combination of these punishment. So when we say “imposing more severe punishment”, we may refer to a case where we increase the amount of fines and length of community service for individuals who commit minor violations.
Or we may refer to a case where we impose the active sentencing in prison, instead of fines and probation on offenders who commit relatively minor offenses. Or we may refer to a case where a criminal who should have been put in prison for 10 years will now be put in prison for 20 years. And the social gains and costs associated with these three policy changes will be all different. The bottom line is that the gains and costs of imposing more severe penalties on criminals will be dependent on the specific contexts of the policy. In any case, incarceration is the primary form of punishment imposed on criminals who commit serious crimes. Incarceration is associated with important social gains and costs.
Let’s talk about the gains first. First and foremost, putting criminals behind bars makes it impossible for them to commit new crimes at least when they are in prison. Second, imposing severe punishment on such criminals may discourage other potential criminals from committing the same crime. Economists are very much interested in understanding and quantifying these two effects, by which more severe punishment can improve public safety. On the other hand, we also know incarceration has its costs as well. The direct cost of incarceration of course includes the cost of building and maintaining prison facilities, hiring prison staffs, and providing inmates with basic necessities, job training, and education. But there are other, more indirect costs of incarceration as well.
Inmates may lose their work skills when they are in prison, so that when they are released, they may have a low chance of finding a job. Their interaction with other inmates may help them build criminal skills and connections, increasing their chances of recidivism. Lastly, when a criminal is locked up, his family members may incur heavy emotional, psychological, and economic losses. All these losses should be taken into account when comparing the costs and gains of incarceration.
Consider the following examples of real-life “get-tough-sentencing” policy reforms:
1) imposing jail terms for reckless driving instead of fines
2) imposing an automatic prison sentence for a major parole violation
3) mandatory 25-year-to-life prison sentences for offenders with multiple serious criminal convictions.
Do you think these reforms would be effective in reducing crime? Can you think of other examples of tougher sentencing reforms?
This article is from the free online

Economics of Crime

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education