Proponents of longer sentencing have put forward that longer sentences achieve higher deterrence levels in criminals. Longer sentences have been recommended for violent crimes such as armed robbery crimes. These are crimes where the thief is armed and dangerous while conducting the robbery. Often, the robbery results in the injury or death of one of the victims. The question is what does research show about the impact of longer sentences on the deterrence levels in the individual.
The impact of longer prison sentences on criminals
In the deterrence theory, a few assumptions hold. The theory assumes that all individuals are rational beings who calculate the costs and benefits of their decisions (Wu, 2005). It assumes that the individuals are intelligent and well-informed of the incarceration terms. The individual will therefore tend to maximize his pleasure and minimize his pain. Government seeks to increase the length of incarceration in order to discourage the criminal from committing more crimes. The proponents of the deterrence theory do not just concentrate on the severity of the crime to deter crime but also the criminal’s awareness of the certainty and swiftness of the sentencing. The proponents for longer sentences say that the individual will not commit another crime when they think of the lost earnings and the other benefits that come with their freedom. It is argued that the lack of approval by others and self is one of the best ways to deter crime. When people think of the social circles they will lose they will be more likely to commit less crime than face longer imprisonment. There is an argument that the longer lengths of sentences wears down the criminal’s drive to commit crime (Song & Lieb, 1993). There have been arguments against the theory of deterrence. The assumption that a person is rational and stable is not perfect. Secondly, not all people are aware of the laws and penalties of the crimes. At times there is a knowledge gap in the potential criminal’s mind. The aspect of deterrence may not be true since people tend not to really consider implications of the decisions today on their future. A good example is that people smoke, take alcohol and do not wash their hands despite their knowledge of the dangers of their actions on their health.
The theory does not also consider the individuals who are impulsive and shortsighted. There has been research contesting the success of the deterrence theory. Research has shown that half of the criminals were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the offense creating holes into the argument that an individual is behaving rationally and will choose not to be arrested. Research has shown that people tend to underestimate the incarceration terms for the crime they have committed. Furthermore the public would not be aware of new laws changing the imprisonment terms for a certain crime.
Over the last decade in the United States there has been an increase in more punitive laws and harsh sentences. As a result there are many people in the prisons today. Interestingly, however studies have shown that the aspect of the certainty of the punishment causes higher rates of deterrence than the severity of the punishment. In deterrence, the individual views the incarceration outcome as too severe. There is also the aspect of the certainty of being arrested and convicted. It is not a 100% guaranteed that criminal offenders will be arrested and convicted of their crimes. This causes the deterrence level to be low. This means that the action of the government increasing the severity of the sentence will have little impact on the criminal decision making if he believes he may not be apprehended for his criminal actions. It has been proven that the individuals who face certainty of apprehension exhibit lower levels of crime rates.
A study in Italy over the introduction of a longer sentence showed that the potential criminals do respond to a change in the lengths of the prison sentences. The study stated that when the crime penalties went up the crime rates went down. The aim of the study was to determine whether longer prison sentences would have the same impact. A clemency bill had been passed for the release of man prisoners who had three years or less on their sentence. If the former inmate was to commit a crime, he or she would go to prison and serve extra years since the remaining years would be added to the current sentence. The research looked at the recidivism rates of the released prisoners and found out that the criminals with longer suspended sentences were less likely to be rearrested. This proved the theory of the success of deterrence. The recidivism rate was very sensitive to the length of the sentence. A month increase in the sentence led to 1.2 percentage of recidivism in the people. The rate of recidivism was found to be consistent across all age groups.
This shows that a bill or policy advocating longer sentences could work only in particular cases to deter crime. However, the study showed that the criminals who had committed serious crimes were not deterred like the other criminals showing that longer sentences for armed robbers had a different impact on the prisoners. The debate for longer sentences is popular because the public always demands for longer and harsher sentences for serious defenders. The public sees it as moral for such people to get longer sentences. The public have an outcry for the criminals to be locked for longer periods or lengths of time in order to enhance public safety. The public believes that by locking them up, they will not do the deed again as they are incarcerated. Research studies have however found the argument hollow since these criminals commit offenses again when released since longer prison terms have a low recidivism rate.
A study conducted in 1999 showed that longer sentences had a 3% recidivism rate. When one compared longer sentencing to community based corrections, community based correction had a 7% recidivism. The study showed that for both low and high risk offenders, the rate of deterrence was the same. The study found that community based sanctions recorded a higher recidivism rate. In examining the impact of longer sentences on low risk offenders, the researchers found that the inmates who served shorter sentences recorded a higher recidivism rate than the ones who served for longer sentences. The ones who served for short sentences maintained ties with their families and friends and they had an easier time re-entering the society. The prisoners who serve longer sentences will more likely lose social contacts, legitimate opportunities and even become institutionalized.
These are factors that encourage recidivism. Furthermore, individuals commit crimes due to physical addictions or limited resources or opportunities. These people need treatment programs and job training not longer sentences. When the politicians demand for longer sentences due to societal demands and pressure, they are being shortsightedness. Adequate research has been carried showing adverse results which the Politian should learn to consider. They fail to consider the results on the ineffectiveness, counter-productivity and the recidivism of incarceration. If the state wants to deter the criminals then they should use other forms of punishment together with incarceration. The individuals may be more deterred by informal treatment. There are also the economic implications of the state giving longer sentences. The government is spending $68 billion annually on incarceration costs.
In light of the research findings and arguments presented above, the state should not rush to give criminals longer sentences. Instead the state should work on having sound crime detection mechanisms such that an individual has the certainty that if he commits a crime he will be apprehended and punished. It is the certainty of the punishment and not the severity of the punishment that causes an individual to deter from committing a criminal activity (Wright, 2010). The society should not seek for false illusions of a safe city just because criminals are serving longer sentences. Longer sentences have negative psychological implications for the offenders causing them to become repeat offenders once they are released. They are not able to assimilate into the society due to the severance of social ties and lack of opportunities to empower themselves. I would therefore advise that the longer prison sentence for armed robbery not be implemented. The state should rely on empirical results of research studies and not the emotional or moral impressions of the people.
Song, L & Lieb, R. (1993) Recidivism: The Effect of Incarceration and Length of Time
Served Retrieved from: http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/IncarcRecid.pdf
Wright, V. (2010) Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of
Punishment. Retrieved from: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/Deterrence%20Briefing%20.pdf
Wu, S. (2005) The Effectiveness of Imprisonment as a Deterrence-based Criminal Justice
Response. Retrieved from: http://web.viu.ca/crim/Student/S%20Wu%20Deterrence%20Theory.pdf