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Crime and Human Rights (10): Does Being Tough on Crime Reduce Crime?

The human right issues created by incarceration are evident, I think: locking people up means taking away a number if not most of their liberties, most obviously their freedom of movement, freedom to work, political freedom in some cases, and privacy. Other rights violations are also common, even in the prisons in rich countries such as the U.S.:

  • juvenile incarceration
  • the substandard conditions in which many prisoners are kept (Federal prisons in the U.S. hold 60% more prisoners than they were designed for)
  • the forced and unpaid labor prisoner often perform
  • the common occurrence of prison rape (see here and here).

Some people clearly deserve to be put in jail, and often that is what is required in order to protect the human rights of their (possible) victims.

However, I mentioned before that the “tough on crime” policies enacted in the U.S. and the resulting explosion in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are in prison (the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world) go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims. The causes of this explosion are numerous.

  • There’s the war on drugs, of course, which leads to excessively tough penalties, sometimes even for victimless crimes (the illegal sale of prescription painkillers for instance). Some of the penalties for drug “crimes” are tougher than the sentences for violent crimes.
  • There are other acts that are in essence victimless and need not be criminalized, and yet result in incarceration in the U.S. (e.g. importing rare orchids).
  • Sentences in the U.S. are too long. Many crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences, taking away judges’ discretion and their ability to take into account the specific circumstances of a crime. “Three strikes and you’re out” lead to life sentences for sometimes trivial crimes.
  • Some laws, especially laws regulating the conduct of businesses – are so vague that people have a hard time steering away from crime.
  • Prosecutors are often allowed to slice up a crime into a series of different crimes, each coming with a minimum sentence.
  • Parole conditions have been toughened, and people are regularly put back in jail for non-criminal violations of these parole conditions.

The cause of all this is probably the race to the top going on between politicians who are all promising to be tougher on crime than the next guy. Some judges in the U.S. are elected and engage in the same kind of bidding.

The prisoner's dilemma is an example of game t...

Image via Wikipedia

The question is: what are the benefits of this toughness, and what are the costs? Regarding the benefits, the homicide rate has been going down in the U.S., but it has since two centuries and it’s not clear that the tough policies introduced during the last decades have contributed much to the decline.

Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars. (source)

Regarding the costs: the prison system in the U.S. is extremely expensive, sucking away funds that could be used much more productively elsewhere, particularly on policies protecting human rights such as education. It’s also money that can’t be spent on better crime detection and better policing. It’s well-known that swift justice and high “catch rates” deter more crime than harsh penalties. If you want to be tough on crime, you shouldn’t necessarily choose the option of putting a lot of people away for a long time. And questioning the high incarceration rates in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re weak on law and order.

High numbers of inmates also reduce the chances of rehabilitation: more prisoners means relatively less prisoners who can take advantage of the limited resources dedicated to vocational training and other activities that make it more likely that prisoners can become normal and non-reoffending members of society once they get out. Together with the phenomenon of prison as a “school for criminals”, this is likely to create a perverse effect: being tough on crime can actually increase crime. People should think hard on the way in which they choose to be tough on crime, and should consider if some crimes need to be crimes at all.


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