Does Punishing Criminals Work?

By Lauryn Pascal


Within society we are often reminded of the importance of ‘learning from your mistakes’. This ideology is in theory implemented by the prison system as suggested by the deterrence theory: threats of punishment or actually experiencing punishment reduces the likelihood of reoffending for prisoners. As a result a high price is paid by the government and from 2019 to 2020, in the UK alone, 4.37 billion pounds was spent on the prison system. This large amount is considered to be an investment as the input should ultimately mean that upon release, the prisoner is discouraged from committing a crime once again. But how effective is this really?


According to the UK Research and Innovation website 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months - a shocking amount when the approximate total number of prisoners is around 93,000. Nonetheless, many then begin to question the lengths of sentencing for prisoners; questioning if they’re serving too little or too long. But what is the most productive way of providing a rehabilitation through sentence lengths?


Taylor (1998) found that harsher sanctions for low-risk offenders serves to increase recidivism rates compared to deploying minimal supervision. These findings suggest that shorter sentences serve as better deterrents as a consistent increase, familiarises the offender, allowing them to overcome the fear of the prison system and feel comfortable within it, not encouraging an avoidance to it. In addition a review of fifty studies dating as far back as 1958 showed that inmates who served longer prison sentences, with an average of about 30 months, had a higher rate of being likely to reoffend than those who served sentences with a much shorter average length of 12.9 months.


While these multiple studies identify the lack of effectiveness in lengthy sentencing, what is the reasoning behind it? Learning theorists, such as Estes (1944), proposed there are several reasons why people are not afraid of punishment:


  1. It is only effective when the threat of punishment is present e.g. customers will not steal because of the presence of a security guard.


  1. Punishment indicates what is wrong but does not guide people to what is right: people often only receive the attention after a negative action and therefore do not feel positive actions provide any result. e.g. teenagers often enjoy the thrill of being disciplined by the police due to the raise in status relative to their peers.


So what really is the most productive way for punishments to actually prove rehabilitating and a good deterrent to offenders? Rather than punishment serving as a deterrent, it must uphold an educative function. Punishment does not need to be experienced personally in order to change behavior. Just as we learn from observing others what will be rewarding, we also learn through vicarious punishment what we should avoid.


Benton’s (1967) study showed that individuals who have observed others being punished change their behavior almost as much as those who were actually punished. This highlights how incarceration will do little good unless it causes people to re-evaluate what they did wrong. When it is carried out properly and combined with reasonable explanations, punishment can teach offenders better ways to behave and deter them, and others alike, from engaging in such crimes.


To conclude while for the public, they may find pleasure in the idea of long sentencing and extreme punishments, the subsequent long term way to truly keep society safe and avoid recurring offensives, must mean punishment cannot continue in this way. Punishment must serve as a negative reinforcement immediately to the undesirable response. It must be administered to make offenders informed and conscious of their actions and how they can change; and finally while being unpleasant to a degree it must not be severe.


I hope this article proves an informative and interesting read. I would love to hear your thoughts as a comment below. Thank you for reading!


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