Short prison sentence leads to more repeat crime
Adults are more likely to reoffend after a short prison sentence than comparable adults with a non-custodial sentence, Leiden University research shows. This is true for the likelihood and extent of repeat crime.
Moreover, the differences do not only apply in the short term, but remain visible over a longer period of time. For example, a short prison sentence compared to community service leads to 55 percent more repeat crime in the first five years after release.
The research ‘Een oude vraag opnieuw onderzocht: Effecten van korte gevangenisstraffen ten opzichte van niet-vrijheidsbenemende straffen op recidive op basis van een instrumentele variabele benadering’ (An old question re-examined: Effects of short prison sentences relative to non-custodial sentences on recidivism based on an instrumental variable approach) is published this week in the Tijdschrift voor Criminologie and is part of the Veni research being conducted by Associate Professor Hilde Wermink. For her research, she collaborated with national and international colleagues with different areas of expertise from economics, criminology, criminal justice and sociology. As part of the study – for the first time in the Netherlands – an econometric method was applied so that the groups of those punished were comparable on all other characteristics. Wermink: 'The effect found is therefore really caused by the punishment and not by other characteristics. That's significant in this case because we want to compare apples to apples.' To determine the effects, the data of more than 40,000 adults was analysed.
'A harsher punishment does not lead to less crime.'
Imprisonment is the harshest and most expensive punishment that can be imposed in many countries. Dutch courts choose imprisonment more often than any other punishment: more than 30,000 prison sentences are imposed annually. This is offset by 26,000 community service sentences and 14,000 fines. Wermink: 'The idea is that harsher punishments will act as a deterrent and discourage people from reoffending. But practice shows a different picture. Harsher punishment does not lead to less crime. On the contrary, we consistently find a higher number of repeat offenders after short prison sentences than after non-custodial sentences. This is true for juveniles, young adults, and adults, and for first-time defendants and those already familiar with the justice system. No group has been found for whom a short prison sentence works better.’
If a Dutch court imposes a prison sentence, in most cases, this is a short prison sentence. For example, three-quarters of prison sentences last a maximum of six months and two-thirds last no longer than three months. Wermink: ‘These sentences seem too short to work on rehabilitation, because the opportunities for that are very limited within short prison sentences. At the same time, prison sentences seem intrusive enough to have a negative effect on the conventional capabilities of the offender. Indeed, imprisonment may cause individuals to lose their social support network, housing and income. In addition, the stigma attached to imprisonment and the pro-criminal prison setting may lead to greater relapse than non-custodial sentences.'
Incidentally, more objectives play a role in the discussion on the effectiveness of punishment. Besides the intended effect of preventing repeat crime, prison sentences can also prevent offences during the term of the sentence, known as the incarceration impact. It is also believed to have a general preventive effect, since punishment deters not only the those being punished, but also other potential offenders from committing crimes. However, the literature shows that these effects are limited. This certainly applies to (extremely) short prison sentences. After all, sentences also serve to retaliate for the suffering inflicted on the victims. To the extent that short prison sentences better meet this need than non-custodial sentences, they would be preferred purely for that reason. On the other hand, the successive criminal offences that this study suggests result from a short prison sentence, create higher financial costs and more future victims.
Preventing recidivism is a core task within judicial policy. The results of this study show that a wider use of non-custodial sentences instead of short prison sentences could be a way to achieve that.
Wermink, H., Blokland, A., Tollenaar, Been, J., N., Schuyt, P. & Apel, R. (2022). Een oude vraag opnieuw onderzocht: effecten van korte gevangenisstraffen ten opzichte van niet-vrijheidsbenemende straffen op recidive op basis van een instrumentele variabele benadering. Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, 2022 (64) 2.