Are Longer Sentences Effective at Deterring Crime?

Congress and many state legislatures have, for the past 20 years, shown little restraint in heading toward higher and higher sentences. Getting tough on crime is always popular, and raising sentences is perhaps a legislature’s only way to do its part. There is no such thing as being too tough on crime.

Actually fighting crime is up to the law enforcement agencies, the prosecutors, the judges, and the prisons. But legislatures want to be seen as making their contribution, so they keep raising the maximum penalties and issuing mandatory minimum sentences.

But it hasn’t worked, of course. It pleases the public to hear what the Congress and the state legislatures are doing: No more Mr. Nice Guy on Crime. But it has not deterred crime. And, by the way, the public is tired of paying for all this extra, extra, extra.

A New York Times editorial in October, 2007, in assessing mandatory minimum sentencing, said laws passed in New York during the 1970’s “drove up the prison population tenfold and cost the state a fortune, did nothing to curb the drug trade, tied the hands of judges and destroyed countless young lives by requiring long prison terms in cases where lenience and drug treatment were clearly warranted.”

Michigan has recently gone the other way. Michigan has repealed almost all of the state’s mandatory minimum drug statutes long cited among the toughest in the country, replacing them with drug sentencing guidelines that give discretion back to the Michigan judges.

A 2006 National Center for State Courts survey found 29 states reporting no effort to counter mandatory minium sentence provisions, and six other states were creating new mandatory minimum penalties.
Oklahoma, however, may be learning from its mistakes. The Oklahoma Community Sentencing Act now gives courtroom judges the flexibility to sentence drug offenders to treatment programs instead of mandatory prison time. And an editorial in the Daily Oklahoman on February 3, 2008 suggested the Oklahoma state legislature shape its policies for tomorrow with the following:

“Lawmakers are part of the problem in maintaining a system that pursues justice by locking up too many people for too many crimes for too long. They can be part of the solution with sentencing reform and by admitting that we can’t afford the status quo. Also needed are changes in the parole system.”

It’s time to realize simply lengthening all sentences has not worked, and other avenues for rehabilitation should be examined.


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