Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Nov. 5, 2007)


Punishment doesn't work?


  By John Martin

It's refreshing that a very public debate regarding the effectiveness of Canada's justice system is taking place. But the constant refrain that "punishment doesn't work" is getting a bit tiring. In calling for tougher penalties, one will surely be met with this rebuttal from academics, criminal justice professionals, activists and others opposed to any crackdown on criminals.

But any eighth grade science student knows that when presenting a hypothesis, your terminology must be defined. What do we mean by "work" when we say, "punishment doesn't work?" What would punishment have to accomplish for us to say it "worked?"

A typical definition of punishment suggests it is the practice of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person in response to an unwanted or disobedient behaviour. Our prisons are not home to the harsh conditions they once were but doing time is hardly a picnic. Would punishment work better if prison conditions were less humane? Again, it depends on what we mean by "work."

One objective of punishment is incapacitation, literally preventing someone from reoffending. Clearly, when people are doing time they're not doing crime. A chronic, drug-addicted offender who is locked up for two years is denied the opportunity to commit hundreds, even thousands, of offences. Perhaps if sentences were longer they would "work" even better.

Another objective is rehabilitation, or reforming the offender. The evidence is mixed on this one. Most inmates have done time before so it can be argued that punishment didn't work for them. But most offenders sent to jail receive sentences of six months or less. That's not even enough time to conduct a proper diagnosis, let alone carry out a treatment plan. Conversely, many long-term offenders have been successfully treated and re-enter society as capable, law-abiding citizens. In this regard, we could argue that if punishment isn't working it's because sentences are too short.

Some suggest that because we still have crime, punishment obviously isn't "working." But this presumes it's the mandate of prisons to prevent crime in the first place, which is totally incorrect. That's the job of parents, schools, communities, and to a lesser extent, social services. We only have prisons because all these other institutions have failed along the way.

Those who attempt to clarify what they mean by "punishment doesn't work" often note that sending people to prison has no effect on the overall crime rate. But if we look at the experiences of California and other states that imposed mandatory minimums and three-strikes-you're-out laws, crime dropped dramatically. True, crime dropped in most jurisdictions over the last 15 years. But the decreases were minimal compared to those jurisdictions that played hardball.

It's interesting that those calling for tougher penalties are dismissed as na´ve reactionaries offering a simple solution to a complex problem. One would be hard pressed to come up with a more simplistic summary of the debate surrounding crime and punishment than to constantly parrot the words, "punishment doesn't work." Surely such an important issue warrants more than a three-word slogan that fits on a bumper sticker.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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