How to Get Tough on Crime

Republicans attack judges for being soft on crime but judges mostly determine sentence lengths and as Jason Willick argues in the Washington Post, sentences lengths are long and making them longer probably won’t help. 

A comprehensive 2013 review of the literature by Carnegie Mellon criminologist Daniel Nagin found that “there is little evidence that increasing already long prison sentences has a material deterrence effect.”…A 2021 analysis by economists Evan K. Rose of the University of Chicago and Yohan Shem-Tov of UCLA found that while serving time behind bars reduces the likelihood that someone will reoffend in North Carolina, there are diminishing returns to longer sentences.

So what can be done?

George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok, in reviewing some of the evidence on crime deterrence in 2016, wrote: “We need to change what it means to be ‘tough on crime.’ Instead of longer sentences let’s make ‘tough on crime’ mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.”

Six years on, we appear headed in the opposite direction. Just 50 percent of murders were solved in 2020 — the lowest rate in at least 40 years. Efforts to beef up police forces, at least in progressive jurisdictions, are likely to face political resistance.

Longer sentences for convicted criminals, meanwhile, remain difficult to oppose on the merits (except perhaps for drug crimes). That was evident during the Jackson hearings, when Republicans attacked her sentences in certain child-pornography cases as too lenient. Democrats shied away from defending the sentences themselves, instead simply explaining that they were within the mainstream.

The Jackson hearings showed that the GOP perceives a political advantage on crime. The key to actually bringing rates down, however, is not a more punitive judiciary, but more effective prosecutors and police. Republicans’ political messaging would pack more policy punch if they focused their attention there.


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