Do longer sentences not stop people committing crimes? No. No they do not.

We read recently of a case that came before the Supreme Court concerning a case of a man sentenced to 15 years in prison for the rape of his 3 daughters.

It’s not surprising that a report of this type provokes a strong reaction.

The day this doesn’t make us feel sad, angry, and confused about the state of our society is the one that we should really fear. It’s also not surprising that this type of case generates a reaction along the line of ‘if there were harsher sentences, people wouldn’t commit this type of crime’.

Sometimes, this type of argument gets trotted out to justify automatic life sentences, or even the death penalty.

But just because people make these arguments often, or loudly does not make them right. There is no reason to think that increasing the sentence for a crime has any meaningful impact on whether people commit that offence or not. In fact, there is plenty of research that tells us very clearly that this is not the case.

First of all, there is evidence that people who commit crimes are more concerned with what is going to happen in the short term than people who don’t commit crimes.

Last year The Economist reported on research by Giovanni Mastrobuoni and David Rivers that looked at whether criminals were more focused on the short term than the general population. Their results indicate that the answer is ‘yes’.

Those already convicted of criminal offences think what is going to happen in one year’s time is around 75% as important as something that is going to happen in the near future.

For people who have not been convicted of criminal offences, the figure is quite a bit higher, at 95%.

So, whatever people who commit criminal offences are thinking about, it is not the fact that they might go to prison for a long time.

Beyond a certain point, making sentences longer does not have a positive effect on people’s decision making.

It does have a negative effect on the budget because keeping people in prison for a long time is a very expensive exercise. Money spent on prisons, staff, food, utilities and so on is not available for other things like schools, doctors, nurses or police officers.

So, if the threat of a longer sentence does not make people think twice about committing criminal offences what does? Well there is plenty of research that tells us that certainty of punishment is much more likely to deter people from committing criminal offences. In 2014, the Business Insider reported:

In a Hawaii program, for example, offenders on probation who faced the certain, but brief, punishment of one to two days of confinement for failing drug tests had far fewer positive tests than offenders who didn’t face that punishment.

If we want a society in which these crimes are committed less frequently, we need to create the general knowledge that if you do this thing, you will be caught, you will be prosecuted in the courts and, if you are found guilty, you will be punished.

Calling for longer sentences is an easy way of expressing outrage and this is an understandable emotional reaction, especially in cases that involve such horrific acts as those that were reported earlier this week.

But if we really want to see this type of crime reduced in our society, we need to use the available research to construct policy and operational responses that are designed to actually have an effect.

We need to see budgetary and policy commitments to appropriate policing so that crimes like this are more likely to be reported and investigated. We need to think about how we support victims and witnesses so that they feel able to go through the challenges of a court case.

We also need to ask some serious and confronting questions of ourselves as individuals and as a society. Are we part of what Rashmii Bell has called ‘the bystander culture’?

Do we report things we know to be criminal offences to the police or do we tell ourselves that it is ‘bisnis blong olgeta’ and walk by?

Do we stand by and allow our family, church and community leaders to blame victims or persuade them not to make a fuss or get the police involved in something that is ‘private’?

Do we offer support to victims so that they feel able to report what has happened and give evidence in court when required?

These are things that will contribute to an environment where the certainty of being caught and punished is increased. And that will have a much greater effect on decisions that people make about whether or not to commit crimes than jumping up and down about longer sentences.

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