Deterrence and Retribution

Wilson argues that prison has a large deterrent effect on crime. I disagree. People are deterred from crime by the certainty and severity of punishment. Research reviewed by Dan Nagin (JSTOR subscription required) shows that the certainty of punishment deters more than the severity. People refrain from crime more out of a fear of getting caught, than a fear of the punishment that might follow. Additional police will thus deter crime more efficiently than additional prison time. Research also shows that people are deterred by the stigma of a criminal record. When severe punishment becomes commonplace, stigma, and its deterrent effect, are diluted. Today, 60 percent of young black male dropouts will go to prison. It is hard to see a strong deterrent effect in these statistics.

Wilson gets to the heart of the issue when he says that punishment expresses a retributive sentiment. Some people, he says, dislike work programs for released prisoners because the programs don’t quench the thirst for retribution. However, when the state’s vast power is used to vent feelings of righteous anger, we regularly over-reach, using that power to act out many different fears and anxieties, not just our anger at victimization. (The war on drugs was fueled partly by the frustrations of middle class families at the depredations of addiction at home, and not the scourge of drugs in poor urban neighborhoods.) The harshest retributive sentiments, sometimes stirred by political entrepreneurs, are also directed at the most disadvantaged and dishonored groups in society.

Retributive punishment — disproportionate and prejudiced — threatens public safety. Wilson’s proposal to offer employment programs only to “deserving” offenders illustrates the point. I think we should provide jobs, drug treatment, and other supports to people released from prison, precisely to reduce crime. Withholding this support, to vent our anger, only serves crime and the anger it causes.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Brown University’s Glenn Loury, author of Race, Incarceration, and American Values, points out that the United States imprisons more of its population than any country on the planet. America’s incaceration policies, Loury observes, fall disproportionately on black men. Loury is disturbed that we seem rarely to consider whether these policies make sense. He argues that they do not make sense, but that “the racially disparate incidence of punishment in the United States is a morally troubling residual effect of the nation’s history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination.” Loury contends that the American ethos of individual responsibility has largely blinded us to the fact that “society at large is implicated in [the criminal’s] choices because we have acquiesced in structural arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment.” Loury concludes: “What the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America show is that [the] American project of civic inclusion remains incomplete.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to this month’s lead essay, the University of Maryland’s John R. Lott, Jr. criticizes Loury for a selective presentation of facts about race and the American criminal justice system. Lott points out that blacks are the primary victims of crimes committed by other blacks. “If we punish black criminals a lot, isn’t it possible that the reason we are doing it is because we care about the black victims?” he asks. Lott argues that while the United States does have the world’s highest rates of incarceration, the evidence shows that the policies behind this fact have been effective in deterring crime. Additionally, Lott maintains that there is little evidence that other criminal penalties disproportionately burden blacks or the poor, and that well-intended policies meant to bring more blacks into law enforcement have actually increased crime rates in minority areas by lowering the average quality of new police recruits of all backgrounds.

  • James Q. Wilson sympathizes with Glenn Loury’s “impassioned cry from the heart,” yet ultimately finds that it comes up short in substance. A more programmatic approach is in order, he argues. Although imprisonment has costs, it also has benefits, including decreased risk from several types of crimes. Yet programs that attempt to reduce criminality and recidivism must start outside the penal system and address broken families, neighborhoods, and educational systems.

  • Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America argues that although the growth of mass imprisonment in recent years has caused a modest reduction in crime, this reduction may not have been worth the costs. Not only did we spend billions on new prisons, we interrupted millions of lives and families. We lost the economic output of prisoners and alienated them from society at large. We further ran the risk of recidivism, because past imprisonment is strongly associated with future crime. Western characterizes the public safety provided by mass imprisonment as “short-term, expensive, and vulnerable to reversal.” Worse, there are other ways to reduce crime that do not rely on imprisonment. Today’s state legislators and governors are no longer as invested in the prison system and do not see more prisons as the solution to social ills, and this, to him, is a welcome development.