How shorter prison sentences may REDUCE violent crime (and save money and destroy fewer lives)

There are at least four reasons we punish criminals: retribution, rehabilitation, prevention, and deterrence. We punish criminals out of a sense that this is just, regardless of the other effects. This is an emotional idea, but it is still useful to ensure a peaceful society: A society that citizens viewed as grossly unjust, in which criminals did not pay for their crimes, would be unstable and likely violent, full of vigilantes. The benefits of rehabilitation are obvious. This makes it unfortunate that that particular aspect usually takes a back seat to the other three. Prevention simply involves keeping dangerous people off the streets so they cannot re-offend. It is 100% certain (for that individual, obviously), but also, if permanent, removes the chance of rehabilitation and is quite sad, really. Prison is also horrendously expensive: It costs around $30,000 per inmate per year!*

The final aspect is deterrence: the idea that those who might be contemplating a crime are more likely to decide against it if there's a decent chance they will be caught and face unacceptable punishment. The approach to this in America has been "more is better": if short prison stays deter some, longer ones must deter more, right? Right, but only partly. There are at least two problems. The first: the longer prison sentences become, the less differences between them matter and the more abstract they are. One year in prison is surely a lot worse than six months. But what happens when we're talking 15 years versus 25? Sure, 25 is a lot more awful to contemplate than 15, but 15 horrendous years facing possible physical and mental violence on a daily basis is almost to horrible for most of us to contemplate. Those undeterred by that are those tough enough to excel at prison life. If that doesn't deter them, do we really think those last 10 years would make the difference? Studies suggest they do not.

The second problem is related to the first: From the beginning, criminologists have argued that different severities of crimes must carry different severities of punishment. This is not just fair, it also serves an important purpose in deterring violent crimes in particular. To see why, imagine you are robbing a someone's home. They are not home, but you are armed with a gun (after all, they might have one, too, and you may need to protect yourself). I've surveyed a few websites about penalties, but it's complicated, so this is purely  illustrative. This would be armed burglary, I guess, which carries a sentence of something like 5 years for your first offence. If you've bee caught before, it could be longer. Let's say it's double. Now, the owner walks in with a gun. You cannot run, or he may shoot. You point the gun back at him, potentially adding another 10 years to your sentence. Your only options now are to surrender, and face at least 10 but possibly even 20 years in prison, or kill him and face 25, but only if you are caught. In the spur and fear of the moment, it is more likely your personal attitude towards killing will make a bigger difference than 5-10 years more in prison, the prospect of which is anyway offset by the fact that you may be able to get away scot free if you commit murder. It may be that the difference between theft, threatening violence, committing violence, and committing murder is not great enough and not optimal. Many European countries have much shorter prison sentences combined with lower rates of violent crime.

Sure, there are lots of reasons for this: greater social spending probably makes people less likely to commit crimes. The lack of guns in Europe is a big reason for reduced gun crime (and higher rates of knife crime in the UK, at least). This is not THE answer, just an illustration of the idea that lower prison sentences are not always "soft on crime." In fact, they may sometimes even reduce it. Plow some of those savings into greater rehabilitation and education efforts, and crime and re-offending could fall further, saving more money and making everyone better off again. Some Republican states are already trying such things and the results are promising. In that regard, at least, more really is better.

*As a tangent, I would argue that, since many criminals end up in crime due to low educational prospects and opportunities, it would be cheaper and perhaps more effective to send them to (community) college! At least then they would emerge from their time with better job prospects, not worse ones. They'd then be less likely to re-offed, saving money, and they'd earn more, paying the government more in taxes. Massive savings all around and a life saved from wasting away uselessly in prison.


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