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Is increasing criminal penalties effective at reducing crime?

By Todd Butterworth on 03/31/2023


Research on crime deterrence shows that increasing punishment severity does little to prevent crime. This is partly because criminals seldom know the legal sanctions for specific crimes.

Increasing the chance of being caught is a more effective deterrent. For example, there is no proof that the death penalty deters crime, whereas a greater certainty of being caught is a deterrent. Effective policing that leads to swift and certain, but not necessarily severe, sanctions is a better deterrent than the threat of incarceration.

Some harsher punishments, such as longer prison sentences, may actually increase the incidence of crime. Inmates can learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment. Research shows only 10% to 15% of the crime decline in the U.S. is attributable to punishment policy. 

This Fact Brief is responsive to conversations such as this one.


Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice Deter crime with scientific evidence about human behavior

National Institute of Justice Five Things About Deterrence

UNSW Newsroom Do harsher punishments deter crime?

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