Did tough-on-crime laws deter crime?
Since it was brought up in the comments about Bill Clinton getting pissed off at Black Lives Matter…
As criminologists know, there are two types of deterrence: specific deterrence and general deterrence. The most obvious specific deterrent is when a criminal is locked up in prison, he can’t commit any crimes. Because we know that criminal behavior is, in almost all cases, not a one-time thing but a continuing behavior, by putting a criminal in prison he is removed from the population and unable to commit crimes. So when the incarceration rate quintupled from approximately 0.1% to 0.5%, removing those criminals from the streets surely reduced the amount of crime.
The idea behind general deterrence is that knowing that the criminal laws have gotten tougher will cause criminals to rethink their criminal behavior. I strongly suspect that this has little if any direct effect on criminals, because the criminal element has both low future-time orientation and has low information about changes in criminal law. Some people might think that if you raised the prison sentence for being a drug dealer from one year to 20 years (and I think that something like that actually happened), all of the drug dealers would flee the field and seek to make money in criminal activities that have a lower criminal sentence. But nothing of that sort ever happened.
I believe that what reduces crime is the PERCEPTION, on the part of the criminal element, that we live in a society where crime is not tolerated. Of course, our attitude towards crime did change when things gout out of hand in the 1980s, and the tough crime laws of the 1990s reflected that attitude, and some of that attitude did trickle down to the criminal element. But I think that even more important are changes in police tactics like hot-spot policing and stop-and frisk. Stop-and-frisk lets the criminal element know that crime is not tolerated, and that law enforcement it out there watching them.
During the last two years, I have watched as we have lost the political will to not tolerate crime. We are definitely at the beginning of a new crime wave. The reason why it doesn’t happen overnight is because of HABIT. Once people get into the habit of behaving lawfully, the habit stays with them. It takes a while for habits to change. But the current message the criminal element is receiving is that society is no longer going to be tough on them, and we will see more and more people break their habit of law abiding behavior in favor of a new habit of criminal behavior.
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Because putting people in prison for a long time doesn’t deter any crime except for the person incarcerated, this indicates that we could probably make some changes to our sentencing system in order to reduce crime. Criminal sentences tend to be based on how evil we think the crime is (and therefore how much the criminal is deserving of punishment). During the 1980s, we decided that drugs were really evil and we increased sentences for drugs. A better way to determine sentences would be based on the likelihood that the person, if allowed back on the street, would commit more crimes, and the seriousness of those crimes (or put another way, the extent to which those likely future crimes will make our society a worse place to live). Crimes that have a higher recidivism rate should, therefore, carry longer prison sentences.