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Politicians Should Stop Advocating Tougher Punishment For Criminals

It may sound counterintuitive, but research and science show that punishment does not deter reoffending.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Some politicians, namely Donald Trump along with Rudy Giuliani, recently have been aggressively playing the fear card toward crime, all to Trump’s political advantage. Taking a lead from the old Republican playbook, politicians have been telling us, with a good bit of anger in their voices, to fear crime and criminals.

In Trump’s words in 2015, “I’m tough on crime. … You look at what’s going on in the inner cities right now. It’s unbelievable … It’s like the Wild West.”

In his May 20 speech accepting the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, Trump tried to instill fear after the Obama administration released nearly 550 nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison: “Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers, and those with gun crimes. And they’re being let go by the thousands.”

The punch line is once we are sufficiently frightened, politicians then assure us that tough-on-crime politicians will make us safe again by imposing tougher punishment.

Unfortunately that won’t work. In fact, tougher punishment will just make things worse.

Back in 1967 and 1968, when President Richard Nixon used the fear of crime to declare wars on both crime and drugs, at least there were realistic concerns about crime and disorder. Crime rates were at historic highs, urban race riots had swept the nation, and protests of the Vietnam War all led to vivid descriptions of a lack of law and order.

And the evidence played every night on national news. But today, the U.S. has near historic low crime rates, and much of what some politicians tell us about crime is simply wrong.

As reassuring as tough-on-crime talk is, the punishment-focused system that we created during the past 50 years is how we got to the point of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve an 80 percent recidivism rate.

That is not an impressive return on investment.

It may sound counterintuitive, but research and science show that punishment does not deter reoffending.

The reasons that punishment does not deter reoffending are compelling. Forty percent of criminal offenders in prison have mental illness. Nearly 80 percent have a substance abuse problem. Sixty percent have experienced at least one traumatic brain injury. Countless other offenders have intellectual and neurocognitive deficits and impairments.

All of these disorders, impairments and deficits contribute heavily to recidivism. And there is nothing about punishment that fixes bipolar disorder or addiction to drugs. Incarceration does not raise one’s IQ nor does it mitigate executive dysfunction, which involves a variety of cognitive processes such as control of emotions and behavior, reasoning, problem solving, planning and memory, among others.

Not only does punishment not deter reoffending, in many situations, both adult and juvenile, it has the opposite effect. It increases recidivism. In fact, contact with the juvenile justice system, particularly incarceration, increases the likelihood that a juvenile offender will persist offending into adulthood.

This is not an excuse or apology for crime. Rather, this is what we know about crime and punishment. Trump’s and other politicians’ tough-on-crime rhetoric is irresponsible and a tremendous disservice to fundamental changes to the criminal justice system.

We need a much more balanced approach to public safety, where we use expensive prison beds for those we truly fear such as violent or chronic habitual offenders. Prisons do a good job of keeping offenders off of the street and thus preventing them from committing crime on the outside. Most others should be diverted to supervision, risk management, and properly designed and operated rehabilitative programming that targets the conditions, disorders and impairments that contribute to their criminality.

This is not “soft” on crime. This is smart on crime because it effectively lowers crime, recidivism, criminal victimization, criminal justice costs and the social and economic costs of crime.

One of the major roadblocks to true, substantive criminal justice reform is the lack of political will and bravery to put in motion what has proved to work. If Trump’s tough-on-crime mantra sticks, he might very well set back any progress we have made in state and federal efforts, as modest as they have been so far, at criminal justice reform.

William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at The University of Teas at Austin. He is the author of two recent books on criminal justice reform, “Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment” (Columbia University Press, May 2015) and “The Future of Crime and Punishment: Smart Policies for Reducing Crime and Saving Money” (Rowman & Littlefield, July 2016).

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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