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Research recently published by the Sentencing Council concluded that the ‘evidence for a general deterrent effect related to sentence severity is weak’. In other words, just because an offence has a long jail sentence, does not necessarily mean that potential offenders are less likely to commit that crime.
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The Effectiveness of Sentencing Options on Reoffending
The Sentencing Council’s recent research – called the Effectiveness of Sentencing Options on Reoffending – deals with a wide variety of issues. Amongst them is one of the oldest questions in criminology: does a severe sentencing outcome deter others from committing a crime?
This is a difficult question to research. The report does not, therefore, rule out a link entirely. However, it does say that based on the literature, “there is no strong evidence to support more severe sentences on the basis of their general deterrent effects”.
Why might sentence severity not have an impact on offending?
The Sentencing Council draws upon various resources in its report, including research published by Andrew Ashworth in 2019. Ashworth says there are four ‘complications’ that explain why sentence severity may have little impact on offending.
1. Lack of understanding
Firstly, an offender is unlikely to know what the likely sentencing outcome will be. If an offender commits a crime without actually knowing what the consequences are, then the punishment cannot act as a deterrent.
2. Perceived low risk of detection
Secondly, an offender might not think that they will get caught. If someone strongly believes that they will avoid detection by the authorities, then the associated punishment will be of little concern.
3. Irrational behaviour
Research shows that would-be offenders often depart from rational behaviour, instead exhibiting traits such as low self-control, high impulsivity and the failure to consider future consequences.
4. Focus on non-legal outcomes
Some offenders will be more focused on achieving or avoiding other outcomes, such as gaining respect or social standing. These may out-weigh the importance of any legal sanctions associated with their actions.
Therefore, severe sentences may have little deterrent effect for many crimes, even where the likelihood of punishment is high. This is incredibly interesting for us as criminal defence lawyers, and gives us good reason to argue against deterrent-based sentences. As the research suggests, they have no credible effect.
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