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Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment

November 19, 2010
Valerie Wright, Ph.D.
An analysis of the deterrent effects of the criminal justice system demonstrates that the certainty of punishment is more effective than the severity of punishment. These findings suggest that continuing to impose lengthy prison terms will have little additional effect on deterring crime.

Over the past several decades state and federal incarceration rates have increased dramatically. As a consequence of more punitive laws and harsher sentencing policies 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails, and the U.S. leads the world in its rate of incarceration.

Sentencing systems and incarceration traditionally have a variety of goals, which include incapacitation, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. In recent decades, sentencing policy initiatives have often been enacted with the goal of enhancing the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system. Under the rubric of “getting tough on crime,” policies such as mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing, and “three strikes and you’re out” have been designed to deter with the threat of imposing substantial terms of imprisonment for felony convictions.

While the criminal justice system as a whole provides some deterrent effect, a key question for policy development regards whether enhanced sanctions or an enhanced possibility of being apprehended provide any additional deterrent benefits. Research to date generally indicates that increases in the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, are more likely to produce deterrent benefits. This briefing paper provides an overview of criminological research on these relative impacts as a guide to inform future policy consideration.

To read this paper, download the PDF below.

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