Crime Prevention: Harsh Penalties Do They Work? What Else Can We Do?

Harsh penalties: do they work?


In 12 weeks time a general election will be held in Queensland, Australia. As expected there are the usual calls for harsher penalties for offenders and particularly for juvenille offenders. But the question needs to be asked do harsh penalties have an impact on crime and if not what other actions can be undertaken?

I’m sorry to disappoint my conservative friends and acquaintances but the research clearly shows that harsher penalties, including lengthy periods in detention, have little or no impact on crime.

Harsher Penalties

As stated above harsh penalties do not reduce crime.

I understand that sounds counter intuitive. It is easy to make a link between punishment being a threat and consequence of crime and that would deter crime. However, the research shows that harsh penalties such as lengthy prison terms have little impact on crime rates. The effect is the opposite of what you would expect if detention was a deterrent. The research shows that not only is there little impact on crime but that the person is more likely to re-offend after serving out their time of incarceration. In fact, approximately 60% of people in prison are repeat offenders. (Knight, Ben “Do Harsher Penalties Deter Crime?” 16 July 2020).

What About Boot Camps?

Once again the idea of a boot camp for youth offenders has been suggested by at least one Queensland politician. This is another popular approach to youth crime. It would seem to be based on the idea that “all they need is a little discipline”. While it may seem to be an attractive proposition i.e. remove a young person from the environment, “hot house” them in a strict (almost military) situation, drive the values of honesty and hard work, punish inappropriate behaviour, return them to their real world situation and they will be reformed and stop committing crime. It also satisfies a punishment narrative for some proponents of this approach.

However, like all harsh approaches to crime Boot Camps just do not work to achievet he intended goal of preventing reoffending.

In 2015 existing Boot Camps operating in Queensland were discontinued. The cost of the program had blown out considerably from an initial budget of $2 million to a cost of $16.7 million. The cost per young person equated to $15,352 while youth detention would cost $999 forthe same period of time.

In addition. the Boot Camps operating did not result in reduced offending. (“Why Youth Boot CampsDo Not Work: RMIT Professor”

This fell in line with earlier research conducted in both the USA and the UK. This research found that Boot Camps were ineffective in reducing reoffending. (“Boot Camps a poor fit for juvenille justice”

Social Policies

If we were really serious about addressing crime we would launch a series of social policies and programs to address the drivers and causes of crime. This would include policies aimed at reducing long term unemployment, improving educational outcomes, increase accommodation options (particularly affordable accommodation and social housing) and other programs to address poverty and its impacts such as permanently increasingthe rate of unemployment payments.

Other policies would include early intervention programs to target youth at risk of committing a crime, drug and alcohol programs, mentoring of young people, assistance with parenting i.e. those aimed at improving a person’s quality of life and their life skills.

Most governments do some of these things such as early intervention programs, diversionary programs but with increasing inequality there is little opportunity to address other underlying drivers such as educational completion, unemployment and poverty.

What Else Can we Do?

The first and most important thing we can do is to build a strong and connected local community. Those places with strong community are safer places with lower crime rates. The reason for this is quite simple. Once you connect with your neighbours you start to build social capital between you and that person. The more you connect the more this social capital grows. With the growth of social capital comes the development of norms of expected behaviour. These norms are largely unwritten but we still observe the boundaries created by these norms.In practice this means a range of behaviours are not tolerated, neighbours intervene when something is out of step with the norms, people start to look out for one another. Intervention by neighbours may simply mean calling the police if something suspicious is occurring in the neighbourhood.

The development of social capital is the most powerful tool in preventing crime. But there are other things we can do.

Targeted responses are required. This involves a holistic approach to each person i.e. reating the offender as an individual and tailoring a program for that person. For some young offenders this may include counselling, ongoing support and the provision of a stable role model for the person. But those advocating a tough on crime approach see this as being soft on crime, even though it has a much higher success rate than harsh penalties.

According to Marcus Felson crime is the result of three factors that occur at the same time: a motivated offender, a target and the absence of capable guardianship. (Sutton,Cherney and White, “Crime Prevention” 2008).

Social capital often provides theguardian as neighbours can be active in natural surveillance as they go about their daily tasks.

However, this guardianship includes much more it includes making the target harder to access. In regards to property crime this includes a range of things such as landscaping, gates, fences, lighting, security screens, locking doors/windows, keeping keys/wallets out of sight, alarms and cctv. In practice this is what most of us do. It is not an onerous task to keep doors locked when away or at night.

In conclusion, we can reduce crime by targeting social policy to the drivers of crime, building stronger communities and being more security conscious. We don’t need to waste public funds on approaches such as lengthy prison termsand other harsh penalties

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s