Study: Potential criminals deterred by longer sentences

May 18, 2009

Deterrence is often a stated goal of criminal sentencing guidelines, but there is debate about whether the threat of punishment actually discourages people from committing crimes. A new study published in the Journal of Political Economy sheds some empirical light on the question of deterrence. Using a recently passed Italian law as a natural experiment, the study found that former prisoners are less likely to return to jail if they expect longer sentences for future crimes.

"This paper contributes to the literature providing evidence that potential criminals do respond to a change in prison sentences," write study authors Francesco Drago (University of Naples Parthenope), Roberto Galbiati (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris) and Pietro Vertova (University of Bergamo).

Passed in 2006, Italy's Collective Clemency Bill presents a unique opportunity to study the deterrent effect of prison sentences, the authors say. Crime rates often drop when criminal penalties are increased. But it's often hard to tell if the rates go down because the threat of longer sentences deters potential criminals, or if the drop happens because actual criminals are physically removed from the street for longer periods. This study of the clemency law's effects eliminates the latter scenario, measuring only deterrent effect.

When the clemency bill was passed, it immediately released thousands of prisoners who had three years or less left on their sentences. The remainder of each prisoner's sentence was suspended, but not forgiven. The law stipulated that a former inmate who commits a new crime within five years will have the suspended portion of his sentence reinstated and added to the sentence for the new crime. As a result, a repeat offender can expect extra jail time equal to the suspended portion of his sentence—anywhere from one month to three years.

Using government data, the researchers looked at the recidivism rates of these former inmates for the first seven months after their release. They found that those with longer suspended sentences—and therefore longer expected sentences for new crimes—were less likely to be re-arrested than those with shorter suspended sentences.

"These results corroborate the general theory of deterrence," the authors write. According to their calculations, "increasing the expected sentence by 50 percent should reduce recidivism rates by about 35 percent in seven months."

But even a small increase in the expected sentence was enough to deter recidivism at least a little, the team found. The data suggest that a one month increase in expected sentence resulted in a 1.3 percent lower probability of returning to prison.

The deterrent effect was consistent across age groups, and among men and women, though 95 percent of the sample was male.

"This means that a policy a commuting actual sentences in expected sentences significantly reduces recidivism," Dr. Vertova says. "A mass release of prisoners can be effective in reducing their propensity of re-committing crimes if, when a released individual gets convicted of a new crime, his normal sentence is increased by the time that was pardoned because of the early release."

There was one important exception to the deterrent effect, however. Recidivism rates among those whose original crime was more serious were essentially unaffected by the length of their suspended sentence. That finding suggests that "more dangerous inmates are not deterred," the authors write.

The researchers also caution that their results only measure deterrence on those who have already served time in jail. "Indeed, it is not clear whether these results can be to individuals who have never received prison treatment."

Despite the limitations, however, the study does provide real-world evidence that "individuals vary their criminal activity in response to a change in prison sentences," the authors write.

Source: University of Chicago (news : web)

Explore further: A call to US educators: Learn from Canada

Related Stories

How listeners perceive verbs

Jan 29, 2007

The verb forms the heart of a sentence. Although a lot of research has been done into the role that verbs play during the transfer of information, less is known about exactly how and when the listener or reader uses this ...

Rising prison population an undeclared national crisis

Apr 01, 2008

Nearly a month after a published study on increasing U.S. prison population revealed more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars, two University of Michigan professors are aiming to elevate the public debate on prison ...

Why criminals cannot say 'no'

May 09, 2008

A study integrating theories from criminology and psychology has provided an in-depth explanation for the link between self-control and why people get into crime.

Recommended for you

College rankings go under the microscope

4 hours ago

Parents, students and admissions officials have combed through college and university rankings for years. However, education researchers have largely ignored the controversial lists. That's about to change, according to a ...

A call to US educators: Learn from Canada

18 hours ago

As states and the federal government in the U.S. continue to clash on the best ways to improve American education, Canada's Province of Ontario manages successful education reform initiatives that are equal parts cooperation ...

Devices or divisive: Mobile technology in the classroom

Apr 17, 2015

Little is known about how new mobile technologies affect students' development of non-cognitive skills such as empathy, self-control, problem solving, and teamwork. Two Boston College researchers say it's ...

Forming school networks to educate 'the new mainstream'

Apr 17, 2015

As immigration increases the number of non-English speaking "culturally and linguistically diverse" students, schools will need to band together in networks focused on the challenges of educating what has been called "the ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
not rated yet May 18, 2009
Let's see now...
Vandalism - "tagging" public works.
In the West, a major problem. Punishment - community service, fines.
Singapore, no problem. Punishment - flogging.
Correlation?
Paradox
not rated yet May 19, 2009
This article is like "Duh"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.