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Crime Reduction and the Length of Prison Sentences

NCJ Number
Law & Policy Volume: 24 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2002 Pages: 17-35
Richard L. Lippke
Date Published
January 2002
19 pages
This literature review examines whether policies of imposing increasingly lengthy prison sentences on serious criminal offenders reduce crime.
From various statistical studies it is apparent that prison sentences in the United States are greater by several orders of magnitude than those in other countries. It may be that the United States has more crime, especially more violent crime, than the other countries involved in these studies. Still, the issue is whether and to what extent there are grounds for believing that the U.S. policies of lengthy incarceration reduce crime. The studies that are most relevant to this inquiry are those that have attempted to determine the extent to which the severity of sentences, as measured in terms of the length and type of sentence imposed, have marginal deterrent effects. Upon examination, such studies have reached mixed conclusions. Some suggest that severity of sentence does marginally increase the deterrent effects of punishment (Grasmick and Byjack, 1980; Klepper and Nagin, 1989). These studies, however, have been subjected to criticism by other scholars who dispute their findings (Paternoster and Iovanni, 1986; Paternoster, 1987). In addition to the deterrent impact of lengthy incarceration sentences, another effect of interest is the incapacitation effect; i.e., imprisonment greatly limits the opportunities of offenders to commit additional crimes, notably against the general population. Surprisingly, the evidence regarding incapacitation effect is not as clearly supportive of its role in crime reduction as logic would dictate. The main source of uncertainty regarding imprisonment's incapacitation effects is the average crime rate of offenders. Various attempts to estimate this rate have been attempted, and they influence estimates of imprisonment's ability to reduce crime; these efforts must be interpreted carefully. Overall, the available evidence regarding imprisonment's deterrence and incapacitative effects is of limited use in answering questions about the likely impact of a 50-percent reduction in the average length of prison sentences. Conceptual and normative analysis of deterrence suggests that there may be some offenders who will only be deterred from crime by threats of long-term imprisonment; however, the size of this group of offenders is indeterminate, although there is reason to believe it is relatively small. Conceptual and normative analysis of incapacitation suggests that there are some serious offenders who will be incapacitated by incarceration. These offenders, however, are difficult to identify; the incapacitation effects likely diminish as these offenders age; and only some of these incapacitation effects translate into actual crime reduction. An issue that has yet to be resolved is whether some nonincarcerative penal sanctions may effectively reduce serious crime at lower cost to society than incarceration. Although it may be simplistically logical to believe that imprisoning offenders for longer periods will reduce crime, a detailed analysis of empirical evidence, coupled with conceptual and normative analysis, suggests that this belief requires further scrutiny. 8 notes and 26 references