Harsh punishment works only up to a point

Priyanca Radhakrishnan, in her article, ‘Lengthy sentences do not deter crime,’ argues that a closer analysis of why crime occurs and how it can be cut at grassroots would be far more effective and less expensive than throwing people behind bars.

Her article (appearing in this Section) also cites two good examples: Celia Lashlie’s ‘A Journey to Prison: Who goes and Why?’ and a Report of the National Research Council on the incidence of crime unmatched by punishment.

As Ms Radhakrishnan has pointed out, crime is an emotive issue. Communities often react with anger over incidents of crime, its escalation and worse, the lenient approach of the law courts in dealing with perpetrators. Such anger turns into rage when offenders, who are young, are sent out on parole or returned to the society after a brief period in rehabilitation centres.

While we condemn crime whenever and wherever it occurs and do not condone those perpetrating it, we also subscribe to the thought that there must be a way to address crime collectively as a community, as a society and as a country.

Family Violence

Years ago, it was natural to express angst over men (or women) who perpetrate violence against women (or men) and demand that the law come down heavily on them. Over time, family violence is being approached more in terms of understanding the reasons behind such heinous crime than in terms of awarding long-term sentences. Admittedly, the incidence of family violence is on the increase but there is also a rise in awareness among the socially conscious. In our own turf, we have established ‘Gandhi Nivas,’ a home that provides temporary food and accommodation and long-term counselling to men who have been issued with Police Safety Order.

Indifference to future

The Economist has, in an analysis of the problem, said that sociologists have long suspected that those who commit crimes place less value on the future than law-abiding citizens.

But they have mostly struggled to find hard evidence that criminals think about sentence lengths at all.

The publication said that following a review, Steven Durlauf of the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Nagin at Carnegie Mellon University found little evidence that criminals responded to harsher sentencing, and much stronger evidence that increasing the certainty of punishment deterred crime.

“This matters for policy, as it suggests that locking vast numbers of people in jail is not only expensive, but useless as a deterrent.”

“A new working paper presented at the Royal Economic Society annual conference, by Giovanni Mastrobuoni at the University of Essex and David Rivers at the University of Western Ontario, provides new evidence that the story is a little more nuanced; criminals do value the future, just not as much as the average person. Harsher sentences work as a deterrent, but only up to a point.

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