The Relationship between Harsh Sentencing and the Deterrence of Crime: Debunking a Myth

On August 24, 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted in favor of Amendment 821 with provisions that set new guidelines on sentencing procedures for federal courts that reduce lengths starting February 1, 2024. The Amendment contains 2 parts: the first weakens the impact that criminal history or “status points” have on sentencing lengths, while the second focuses on individuals with no prior criminal record and those who didn’t commit an aggravated crime. In an Impact Analysis report, the Commission estimated that 18,767 convicts will have their prison sentences reduced by an average of 14 to 15 months. 

The motive behind this Amendment is presumably to lower the incarceration rate in the United States. Although the U.S. only amounts to 5% of the global population, it holds 25% of the world’s convicts, making it home to the highest incarceration rate in the world. The current “tough on crime” mentality of the justice system is partially to blame for this startling figure.

Even though most Americans—including Republicans—are now turning away from the use of punitive approaches and toward more progressive ones, there still exists the myth that the threat of harsh sentencing reduces crime. However, when looking at rates throughout the country, this belief is ungrounded. 

Currently, 24 states in the country retain the death penalty, with these states mostly being located in the South and the Midwest. The logic behind capital punishment is that it would, in theory, deter individuals from violent crime through fear. Statistics, however, dispel this notion, as crime rates are actually higher in the South, Midwest, and the lower Northeast, where there is no death penalty. Among southern states, Oklahoma issues the most executions, but has a higher crime rate than Texas, even though the latter has the second leading per capita state execution rate.

The current justice system in the United States hashes out severe sentences for the purposes of punishment rather than rehabilitation. This includes ‘three strikes’ laws that deal out even longer sentences, depending on the exact offense, for citizens who already have two prior convictions and are sentenced to a third. In Alabama, hundreds of individuals have been sentenced to life imprisonment under the Habitual Felony Offender Act for merely shoplifting, with some instances being as meager as a stolen pair of socks or a bicycle. A 2021 five-year longitudinal study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 71% of criminals were reconvicted within five years. It appears these ‘three strikes’ laws do not deter crime regardless of the severe punishment for reoffending, but instead have little to no effect on criminals. According to the BBC, experts say this is because individuals who commit crimes believe they won’t get caught, even if they have served time before. 

To provide a counterexample to the U.S. reconvictions rates, in Norway, the reconviction rate within the same timespan is only 25%. However, it is important to know that sentencing in Norway is vastly different. Not only is there no life imprisonment, but more than 90% of sentences are less than a year long. The country is ranked 104th on the worldwide crime index, while the U.S. ranks far higher at number 57. Fear of long imprisonment is evidently not responsible for Norway’s ranking; rather, its short sentencing policies may be responsible for it being the country with the lowest rates of reoffenses. Along with the emphasis on other rehabilitative measures such as therapy and drug treatment courts, the short duration of their imprisonment may make it easier for criminals to transition back into society, which is one of the difficulties that can cause someone to reoffend.

There is no negative correlation between the existence of capital punishment and lower crime. It is important to note that the U.S. may in fact look more crime-ridden than it actually is. We are prone to imprisoning criminals for longer and for more petty offenses, making the rate of crime inflated. The implementation of Amendment 821 is set to reduce this, even if that is minimally so. The key to combating crime is not to punish or to frighten, but to rehabilitate. Though this is a step in the right direction, much more reform needs to be done in order to fix our criminal justice system.


This article was edited by Zachary Bader and Katherine Hohman.