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Do Penalties Keep People from Committing Crimes?


I'm very skeptical about the statement that penalties prevent people from committing crimes. There are obviously no facts to back this up (or are there?).

I often hear though that it's better not to do things that are against the law (the institute) because you could end up in jail. But in many cases crimes are committed, with or without a thought spent on ensuing penalties.

The prisons often haven't enough place to put the people away who are convicted of whatever crime (stealing, robbing, rape, war crimes, political "crimes", etc.). Especially in the U.S.A. ("thanks" to former President Clinton), a huge number of people are locked up for the tiniest offense.

So, people do commit crimes. Preconceived or due to circumstances. Maybe it can even be said that due to the punishments people commit crimes in most intractable ways, if preconceived.

All of this is the reason for my skepticism. Is my skepticism "justified"?

I edit because I read this question: Is there any moral reasoning behind punishment?

Is there a difference between these two questions? If the punishment doesn't help is there a reason to ask about a moral system on which you base judgement?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 18 '20 at 11:14
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    This would be a question for criminologists, people who do indeed study factual crime rates and the effect of penal laws, politics, economy on those. IIRC, it has been established that the probability of getting caught and the difficulty to morally justify a crime are better deterrents than the severity of the punishment. I.e. people tend to do less crime if they are almost sure to take 1 year, than if there is small chance to take 10, and people who can justify their act ("I do it to feed my kids", "the victim had it coming", etc) do more crime than those who can't as easily find an excuse.
    – armand
    Jun 29 at 9:56
  • The problem on the surface is it assumes everyone thinks the same. I'm skeptical of the claim myself because 1) For those more likely to respond to the rule, its likely that they wouldn't do the action anyway if they percieved it as immoral. 2) For those unlikely to respond to the rule, we're likely talking about a conduct disorder or some sort of arangement of facts that has led them into this life of crime. But when talking about "people" my first question is "which people".
    – Shayne
    Jun 30 at 4:48
  • @Shane The criminals...Though Im not sure who I mean with that. Then you should ask the question what is a crime? If you define this by looking at the books of law ( criminal facts) then how would you know how many people còmmited a crime or not? The unsolved cases, so to speak? How many get caught? Will the number of unsolved (and solved) cases go down if penalties get more severe? There is a death penelty in America but the murder rate is higher than anywhere. Your hand is chopped off (in some cases) in some Arabic countries if you steal but people still steal Jun 30 at 5:22
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I think it depends on the crime and the risk/reward calculation would-be criminals make. Will the benefits from committing this crime outweigh the risk of punishment?

Some crimes can clearly be prevented by the law, since as we have recently seen, weak law enforcement can lead to increased crime. NYC disbanded an anti-crime unit in June, and almost immediately shootings skyrocketed.

In 2014, California passed Proposition 47 that, among other things, made theft below $950 a misdemeanor. This made it exceedingly unlikely police would follow up on it; they're too busy dealing with felonies. As a result, some businesses have seen shoplifting rates increase dramatically.

Others, the risk of punishment just changes how they're executed. A determined criminal will just change his tactics to avoid punishment, rather than abandon the plot entirely. For example instead of shooting his wife, a disgruntled husband out for the insurance money will make it look like an accident.

Last, remember these risk/reward calculations don't have to make sense to you, the calm rational Stack Overflow user, they have to make sense to the emotional, short-sighted misanthrope. You and I wouldn't shoot someone over some petty dispute, but we're good at risk/reward arithmetic.

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  • As a result, some businesses have seen shoplifting rates increase dramatically. I wish I was living there! I got 5 days in a police cell after I took something for my wife's birthday. And I had to pay the shop 200 euros! +1, by the way. Sep 16 '20 at 18:47
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    We cannot prove objectively that something was prevented. But perhaps there is a subjective answer to your question. Have you shoplifted since then? To add further verification, I can state that I have not... I haven't shoplifted since I was caught long, long ago "liberating" a brass compass and protractor set in a German department store. Sep 16 '20 at 19:08
  • @NelsonAlexander In fact, I stole something this afternoon. But I didn't for a long time. Not because of the penalty awaiting. My wife is heavily against it and marks every move I make when we are shopping. I like to do it in a way she doesn't notice. And she didn't this afternoon. It was a little bottle of whatever... Sep 16 '20 at 21:03
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    I'm not really convinced by the evidence for the claimed causative relation between the reassignment of the 600 police officers and the increase in shootings in August 2020. The NYT article compares one week in August 2020 to the same week in 2020, but doesn't comment on whether the observed increase actually started after the reassignment. The same numbers could also be indicative of a steady, long-term increase in shootings that is unrelated to the reassignment. Note that I'm not saying that the claimed causation isn't there, but I'm wondering if there is better supporting evidence for it.
    – Schmuddi
    Sep 17 '20 at 10:10
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If there is no law against an act, it's not a crime. So in fact, the law is the only thing that makes it possible to commit crime.

If the question is whether the law prevents certain acts (e.g. murder, theft), leaving aside how to define these acts that doesn't itself rely on some kind of normative law, it's hard to see how the existence itself of a law would provide an incentive to break it.

Since you complain about people who "are locked up for the tiniest offense" it seems that the question really is: Does strict law enforcement prevent crime?

In sociology of crime, the labeling theory holds that the strict enforcement of law can "label" people as criminals who would otherwise live normative lives. Because they were labeled as criminals, they continue to act as criminals. Thus the strict enforcement of law can cause even more crime by labeling more people as criminals.

On the other hand, the broken windows theory posits that visibility of crime leads to more crimes being broken. So if the law isn't enforced in the minor cases, more people see the law broken, which influences them as well to commit even more serious crimes. According to this theory, strict enforcement of law is necessary to prevent even greater crimes from being committed, and so law enforcement does prevent crime.

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  • If there is no law against an act, it's not a crime. I don't think crimes are law-related. Crime doesn't cease to be a crime when no laws are present. Because they were labeled as criminals, they continue to act as criminals. Thus the strict enforcement of law can cause even more crime by labeling more people as criminals. Good point and good answer! +1 Sep 16 '20 at 18:38
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    @DescheleSchilder "I don't think crimes are law-related. Crime doesn't cease to be a crime when no laws are present." - then apparently your concept of crime is some form of natural law, but when you talk about "the law" you mean the actual legislation or enforcement in a country
    – b a
    Sep 16 '20 at 19:24
  • @ b a When you mentiion natural law, this is quite complicated but Spinoza in the. 'Polirical Theological Treatise (TTP) describes the 'state of nature's prior to organized communities. Wherein working together did not exist and seeking your own benefit was the 'Natural Law', and it marks organic human nature. From his standpoint you can have whatever your natural power can claim. Right and wrong are civil conventions required to establish Civilty. Crime from this view would not be morally wrong but not useful. Punishment while necessary need not be abusive, but still must be corporal and work
    – user37981
    Sep 16 '20 at 23:32
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    @CharlesMSaunders What you are describing is usually referred to as state of nature. Natural law is the position that morality is natural and not by convention. I was pointing out that if Deschele Schilder believes that crime is a crime even when no laws are present, he is assuming that crime is subject to morality by nature and not by convention
    – b a
    Sep 17 '20 at 11:18
  • @DescheleSchilder You appear to be using definition two at MW: "a grave offense especially against morality". There's nothing inherently wrong with the usage, but it's non-technical, and you're on a website full of people who love technicality. Becareful yourself not to become to enmeshed in a equivocation.
    – J D
    Sep 19 '20 at 17:37
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"for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries, whether rich or poor."

From 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better'

"63% of violent crimes worldwide involves the use of alcohol"

From Alcohol-Related Violence. Interestingly inequality correlates strongly with rates of violent crime, but not with rates of property crime, pointing to human sensitivity to status issues and social mobility, having consequences for criminality.

Peer groups are important, especially for youth crime. I would argue that local community reaction to a given crime is likely the biggest factor in shaping behaviour. As attitudes to sex crimes, domestic violence, and race crimes like lynching have changed, so have the prevalence. Tax fraud and insider trading are looked on in some communities as just part of business - although penalties like disbarring from executive roles, and of lawyers from practicing law, may do more than other criminal penalties. Perhaps the biggest consequence of declaring bankruptcy is being restricted from setting up & running most kinds of businesses.

The death penalty is proven a poor deterrent against what are typically impulsive crimes of violence. There is a very strong link between traumatic head injuries and becoming a murderer.

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  • The tower killings in America ( on a university in the sixties) were indeed commiited by a guy with a disease in his brain. He had anger issues because of that resulting in him shooting lmost 100 people ( I don't know the exact number). Jun 29 at 12:13
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    @DescheleSchilder: 15 dead 31 injured, the worst in USA at the time en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Texas_tower_shooting He had a hypothalamic tumor, pressing on a key part of the brain for anger. Sam Harris uses it all the time in his denying of free will. The Las Vegas shooting in 2017 resulted in 60 dead, 867 injured, & doesn't leave any such neat lesson.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 29 at 12:20
  • James Huberty was even a guard (!). He shot 21 people dead in a McDonalds. Why did he do that? Jun 29 at 12:28

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