Voir en Français

Evidence shows that certainty of punishment more effective than tougher sentences

A version of this commentary appeared in the Vancouver Sun, Guelph Mercury and the Winnipeg Free Press

The Harper government is committed to spending billions of dollars on prisons in order to crack down on crime.  Those who oppose this approach are called soft on crime and accused of not standing up for victims, and the ensuing debate typically falls along party lines.  However, partisan politics aside, evidence shows that a prison-focused approach will do little to either reduce the number of victims or to help them deal with the consequences of their victimization.  But there are measures that are effective — and positive examples we can follow.

Many criminologists would agree that the Conservatives have some things right. First, Canada does have too much crime.  Far too many Canadians are victimized and the Department of Justice has recently estimated that the annual cost of crime is $100 billion.

Second, victims are not well-treated in Canada.  Little is spent on victims and there have only been marginal improvements in this over the last several years, no matter the party in power.  Despite their rhetoric, the Conservatives are investing only token amounts in actually improving services for victims.

Cracking down on crime through increasing penalties and implementing mandatory minimum sentences does little or nothing to reduce crime or make Canada safer.

Economists Steven Durlauf and Daniel Nagin recently reviewed dozens of studies on the deterrent effects of imprisonment and concluded that increases in sentencing severity and mandatory minimum sentences have little or no impact on crime.  This is likely because the vast majority of offences do not result in conviction or imprisonment and the remote chance of receiving a very harsh sentence does not stop offenders from committing crimes.

If more prisons isn’t the answer, what can the government do to reduce crime?

We know that certainty of punishment is much more important than severity so criminal justice resources should focus on increasing the certainty of punishment rather than on expanding prisons.

The best way of increasing certainty is to use a targeted deterrence strategy directed at high-rate offenders. Serious offenders are told they will be getting special attention and that there will be zero tolerance for breaking the law.  Teams of police and probation and parole officers are assigned to ensure that these promises are kept.  Offenders are also given extensive support if they choose to leave their criminal lifestyles.

The Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy is an example of a targeted deterrence program.  In 2006, Winnipeg’s auto theft rate was about 80 percent higher than the next highest Canadian or U.S. city.  One in every 5 crimes in Winnipeg was an auto theft.

An interagency team identified over 100 high rate offenders and told them they would receive curfew checks every 3 hours and that violations would result in charges.  The program also included a mandatory vehicle immobilizer program, enhanced social programming for high-risk youth, and community-based programs for other at-risk young people.

Since 2006, auto theft rates have dropped by 83% and Winnipeg has 11,000 fewer crimes each year.  The $50 million cost of the program was quickly repaid, and Winnipeg motorists now save over $30 million a year in their insurance premiums.

An earlier targeted deterrence program reduced gang homicides in Boston by 63 percent.  After successfully duplicating this program in several other cities, the U.S. government decided to invest billions of dollars supporting similar programs across the country as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods.

In contrast, the Canadian government tackled gang shootings in 2006 by legislating mandatory minimum 5-year sentences for gun crimes.  In the three years following this legislation, gang homicides and handgun homicides actually increased before declining in 2010.

These very dramatic crime reductions in Winnipeg and Boston required no new laws and resulted in fewer people in prison.   Thus it is possible to simultaneously reduce both crime and imprisonment.

If sanctions are certain, they need not be severe to cut crime.   The evidence shows that we can have both less crime and fewer people in jail which would help cut government spending.

Rather than wasting billions on new prisons, Canadians should invest this money in increasing the certainty of arrest for high-risk offenders, expanding proven social development programs to reduce potential offenders, and providing real support to victims of crime.  If Canadians want to declare war on crime, we should at least use modern weapons.

Rick Linden teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba, and is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca. He is also he co-chair of Manitoba’s Auto Theft Task Force and serves on the Management Committee of Winnipeg’s Gang Response and Suppression Program.

January 2012

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.