‘Making an example’ of someone doesn’t work

Published 5:37 pm Friday, October 4, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

We all need to stop trying to “make examples” of people who have done something wrong.

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Society tries really hard to make examples out of almost anyone these days — but especially people accused of crimes.

The logic goes something like this: People who committed a crime should be given a harsh penalty for that crime because it will make other people think twice before committing the same crime. A harsh punishment now supposedly prevents crimes from occurring in the future.

It’s called “deterrence,” and almost everyone seems to think it’s a good idea. But the fact is, deterrence through harsh penalties after the fact fails rather spectacularly to prevent future crime.

This isn’t just our position, and the facts aren’t in doubt. There’s enough research and evidence out there about this that the U.S. Department of Justice, through its National Institute of Justice, has concluded plainly that “sending an individual convicted of crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime.”

“Prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences (particularly long sentences) are unlikely to deter future crime,” according to the NIJ. “Prisons actually may have the opposite effect: Inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment.”

The NIJ has also concluded that “increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime” and “there is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals.”

Think about everything that would have to happen in order for a harsh penalty to have a deterrent effect on future crime:

  • first, someone must be punished severely, not necessarily because it will rehabilitate them or help them not commit crimes in the future, but in order to send a message;
  • someone else must decide to commit a similar crime;
  • that second person must be fully aware of the original “deterrent” case, to the extent that they easily remember it as they are considering whether to commit a crime;
  • the second person must be able to recall what the harsh penalty given in the original case was, and weigh that punishment against whatever reasons they have for committing a crime;
  • the second person must not have a drug addiction that overpowers their desire not to commit a crime;
  • the second person must be able to come up with an alternative to committing the crime that isn’t just committing a different crime.

Who really thinks someone in a position to commit a crime is really going to think through all that?

Now think about yourself: Is the reason you’re not committing a horrible crime right now because you are afraid of getting punished if you do? No. You’re not committing a crime right now because you don’t want to.

If for some reason you are pondering committing a crime, you’re still not going to do it if there’s a police officer nearby or you think you’ll get caught.

That’s the real way to deter crime: The CIJ has also found that “the certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment.”

Police can deter future crime far better than prosecutors “by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught,” according to the CIJ. “… A criminal’s behavior is more likely to be influenced by seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio than by a new law increasing penalties.”

Of course, the true best way to prevent crime in the future is to help more people become happy, financially stable and free of addiction so they won’t want to do things that are crimes in the first place. Toward that end, compassion and education go much further than punishment ever could.