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Do Stiffer Sentences Act as a Crime Deterrent?

It Does for Some Criminals, Study Finds

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Does the threat of facing longer sentences for repeat offenses discourage offenders from committing additional crimes? Obviously, there are some criminals for which no threat of penalty deters them from crime. But for other, less dangerous criminals, the threat of a longer sentence for future crimes makes them think twice.

Few studies have been able to show a direct link between stiffer penalties and crime deterrence, because so many other factors come into play. But a recent law passed in Italy gave researchers the opportunity to study the effects of the threat of longer sentences for future crimes.

An Opportunity to Study Deterrence

In 2006, Italy passed a Collective Clemency Bill that set free all prison inmates who had less that three years left on their sentences. However, the law stipulated that if the former inmates were convicted of any crime within the next five years, the remainder of their suspended sentence would be added to whatever sentence they received for their future crime.

The law gave researchers the chance to study the direct effect of the threat of longer sentences on the recidivism rates for the former inmates. They checked on the inmates seven months after their release from prison.

Longer Sentences Deter Some Inmates

The findings of the study included:

  • Inmates 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.

  • Even a small increase in the expected sentence - as low as one month - was enough to reduce recidivism slightly, 1.3 percent.

  • The deterrent effect was consistent across all age groups and genders of former prison inmates.

"These results corroborate the general theory of deterrence," the authors wrote. "Increasing the expected sentence by 50 percent should reduce recidivism rates by about 35 percent in seven months."

More Dangerous Offenders Unaffected

There was one significant exception to the deterrent effect, the researchers found. Inmates convicted of more serious original crimes were not affected at all by the threat of longer sentence. In other words, the more dangerous inmates are not deterred by the threat of stiffer penalties.

Although the Italian study demonstrated that longer sentences can be a deterrent for some offenders, the findings only apply to those who have previously served time. It is still not clear if the deterrent effect is also true for those who have never been to prison.

The Italian study was published in the Journal of Political Economy.

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