More Punishment, More Crime?

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 28 2012 @ 4:02pm

Last week Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik received the maximum sentence under Norwegian law – 21 years (the sentence can be extended indefinitely if Breivik is deemed a threat after serving his time). David Dow supports the punishment:

The cruelest irony of all is that America’s harsher attitude toward criminals does not translate into greater safety for the rest of us. It turns out that the two objectives of punishment can be at war with one another, and in America we are giving up greater security to indulge a vestigial instinct. Criminal penalties in Europe are substantially shorter than they are in America, yet Europe has fewer repeat offenders. In Germany, for example, prison sentences are a third as long as they are in America for equivalent crimes, yet the rate of recidivism is twenty-five percent lower than on this side of the Atlantic. More severity, it turns out, does not reduce crime, and might even increase it.

Along the same lines, Dylan Matthews argues that "harsh sentences, if anything, increase recidivism":

The economists Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro exploited (pdf) the fact that the federal prison system assigns prisoners to different security levels based on a numeric score indicating  how much supervision that inmate needs. There are then cutoffs for assignment to each security level. Those scoring above a certain cutoff get medium security, those below it get low security, and so forth. Chen and Shapiro compared prisoners with scores just above and just below cutoffs to see how being assigned to a higher security level affected recidivism.

Their finding? Those at the border who end up placed in a higher security prison reoffend at a significantly higher rate than those at the border place in lower-security prisons.