Do longer prison sentences really reduce crime rates?

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23 November
09:41
November
2016

Well, they might do, to the extent that if people are in prison then they can’t commit crimes in the community. But then they might still be offending in prison, whether it’s drinking or taking drugs – both of which have had a lot of coverage recently. They’re still offending, but they’re doing it out of sight and out of mind.

There’s not really a great deal of evidence that long sentences reduce the likelihood of offending in the future. But it makes a good headline, and politicians want to sound tough on crime. A lot of policy-making is not based on any evidence, but you can use policy to send out a message.

"A prison sentence is very expensive. It costs around 35 to 40K a year to contain somebody, and you could do something a bit more constructive with that kind of money."

The likelihood of re-offending sometimes goes down due to what’s known as ‘ageing out’ – when people grow up, get married or start a family, they’re less likely to offend. There’s also the matter of brain development. There’s evidence to suggest that, particularly in males, the brain is still developing up to the age of 25, so things like impulse control can improve as they get older.

In terms of longer sentences as a deterrent, many people instinctively think that if you’re risking getting a heavy punishment for a crime, then why would you do it? But lots of crime isn’t rational. A lot of crime is impulsive. Most offenders are also quite confident, and they think they’ll get away with it. And many probably do.

Some people are committing offences because they’re drunk, on drugs, or because they need the money for drink or drugs. Others are emotionally immature, some have learning difficulties, or they may have a condition like ADHD that makes it more difficult to think things through rationally.

A prison sentence is very expensive. It costs around 35 to 40K a year to contain somebody, and you could do something a bit more constructive with that kind of money – particularly with a short-term sentence, where in many cases the offender will come out to find they’ve lost their house, but they’ve not been in prison long enough to take a course, learn to read or take anger management classes, for instance.

The prison population is currently the highest it’s ever been. Due to cuts in prison staff and disturbances in prisons, what happens is that people are locked up all day, classes are cancelled, and there’s less opportunity to do something constructive in that time. Rehabilitation depends on a person wanting to change, and that can be easier to do on a longer sentence, allowing them to plan, get on to a course or get off drugs.

People in prison might also learn to commit more serious crimes – particularly with younger offenders who end up with more experienced offenders. They may discover better ways of doing things, or could leave prison owing them money for drugs. They may come out of prison without any aftercare, and it’s harder to get a job if you’ve been in prison.

There are also difficulties for different groups of people. If a man with a female partner goes to prison, their partner is more likely to keep the family together and to visit him. But if the offender is a woman, the relationship is more likely to break down while she’s in prison – making things even more difficult for her when she comes out.

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