Controversies: Tough on crime

About the controversies series: Controversies publications present the academic literature pertaining to an issue, and take one empirically-based side. These publications are intended for distribution and are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are interested in issues in psychology and law. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Controversies publications undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.

About the author: This article was written by Julia Shaw, a PhD student researching forensic psychology misconception endorsement and criminal thinking at the University of British Columbia (Canada).

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Remember to also read our article on whether adolescents should be tried as adults!


Beliefs are often held without supporting evidence and can be seen as opinions or convictions. So-called “tough on crime” beliefs fall into this framework, and involve the belief that a punitive criminal justice system that imposes harsh sentences is the most appropriate way to deal with offenders. These beliefs typically focus on retribution instead of rehabilitation[8], and assume a strong notion of individual responsibility (often even holding very young offenders to the same punitive standards as adults). Justification for this approach is often founded on notions that are widely propagated by the media over concerns of rising crime rates and an increasing dissatisfaction with criminal sentencing. This approach to the emotional issue of crime is controversial and ridden by logical flaws[11]. Before we come to rash conclusions, however, let us examine the evidence for and against punitive sentencing.

“Our intention is to avoid the extreme partisan bickering about whether to be 'soft' or 'hard' on crime, but to combine social science and common sense so that our correctional systems can more effectively change behavior. After all, isn't that their job?” – Dr. Dvoskin

Evidence for.

Punitive sentencing appears to meaningfully reduce crime and re-imprisonment rates for severe offences, which is one of the principal supporting arguments for tough on crime policies[9]. One primary reason for this is that offenders experience maturational gains while incarcerated, and older offenders are less likely to re-offend and have better employment chances than younger offenders. Second, offences are prevented while offenders are incarcerated, as these offenders have little or no opportunity to recidivate. Finally, tough on crime policies generate harsher penalties, increasing the costs of crime, and acting as a deterrent for members of the general public. A primary argument used by researchers advocating for tough on crime policy change is that “nothing works” in rehabilitating offenders, a notion based on Martinson’s 1974 research review indicating the limited effectiveness of many prison programs at the time[10,5]. This idea has become synonymous with the notion that non-punitive efforts cannot meet the goals of the justice system.

Evidence against.

What the proponents for punitive sentencing fail to mention is that increased prison sentences are associated with an increase in overall recidivism, that tough on crime policies fail to deter crime, and that the financial costs of incarceration are unjustifiable (over $100,000 per offender, per year) [3,6,7]. This empirical research, conducted on large numbers of offenders in various countries, thus discredits the majority of claims made by tough on crime supporters. This research also suggests that prevention and rehabilitation result in a bigger payoff, both financially and in reductions in crime, than reactive methods such as tough on crime policies4. In particular, programs that adhere to the Risk-Need-Responsivity model have been shown to reduce offender recidivism by up to 35%[1,2]. This means that effective programs need to identify those at the highest risk to offend, address their needs, and use empirically-based and psychologically-sound responses for reducing criminal behaviour.

What it all means.

The accumulating evidence suggests that the retribution movement has been a disastrous failure. In 2011, academic experts and professionals are unanimously against the use of tough on crime policies. Sentencing guidelines promoting longer incarceration or minimum terms also support growing prison populations, which come with a host of associated problems. Prisons become overcrowded, conditions deteriorate, services become underprovided and interventions targeting underlying criminal factors become outdated. Incarceration and community sanctions are thought to serve justice and deter crime. The evidence however, suggests the contrary, promoting rehabilitation instead. With the present punitive system that rests largely on misinformed “common-sense” and a retribution-based model, we are spending a fortune making our communities less safe. To quote Dr. Dvoskin once more;

“Do you want retribution or do you want your kids to be safe? You can’t have both.”

Personally, I choose a safer society.

The quote wall.

“For over 30 years, criminal justice policy has been dominated by a ‘get tough’ approach to offenders. Increasing punitive measures have failed to reduce criminal recidivism and instead have led to a rapidly growing correctional system that has strained government budgets.”

– Dr. Don Andrews and Dr. James Bonta, renowned academic researchers in the area of psychology and law.

“You couldn't design a system that was more likely to create a dangerous high-crime country if you set about it. With all the knowledge of psychology... our entire criminal justice system does almost everything wrong.”

- Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a highly acclaimed forensic psychologist, on the current tough on crime policies in the US.

"Despite the promises of political leaders and others who have promoted them as effective tools for fighting crime, ‘tough on crime’ policies have proved to be costly and unjust."

– M. Mauer, acclaimed author and director of The Sentencing Project.

“An increasing reliance on prisons as the primary weapon in fighting crime has not only proven ineffective but has also increased crime and endangered the public”

– P. Elikann, lawyer and academic author.

“It represents a huge step backwards; rather than prioritizing public safety, it emphasizes retribution above all else. It's an approach that will make us less safe, less secure, and ultimately, less Canadian.”

– The Canadian Bar association, representing over 37,000 lawyers, on Canada’s 2011 tough on crime bill.

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  1. Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2010). Rehabilitating criminal justice policy and practice. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 16(1), 39-55. doi:10.1037/a0018362
  2. Chamberlin, J. (2009). Effective rehabilitation is absent from most American prisons. How can Psychology help? Crime and Punishment, 40, 52-53. Retrieved from:
  3. Clear, T. (2008). The effects of high imprisonment rates on communities. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and justice: A review of research  (Vol. 37, pp. 97–132). Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
  4. Cook, A. N., & Roesch, R. (2011). “Tough on crime” reforms: What psychology has to say about the recent and proposed justice policy in Canada. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, doi:10.1037/a0025045
  5. Cullen, F. T., & Gendreau, P. (2001). From nothing works to what works: Changing professional ideology in the 21st century. The Prison Journal, 81(3), 313-338. doi:10.1177/0032885501081003002
  6. Dvoskin, J. A., Skeem, J. L., Novaco, R., & Douglas, K. S. (2012). Using social science to reduce violent offending. New York: Oxford University Press. (Free overview of this book is available here:
  7. Eilkann, P. T. (1996). Tough-on-crime myth: Real solutions to cut crime. New York: Insight Publishing Co.
  8. Ernst, T. L. (2011). CBA action on omnibus crime bill. The Canadian Bar Association. Retrieved from:
  9. Fass, S. M., & Pi, C. (2002). Getting tough on juvenile crime: An analysis of costs and benefits. Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency, 39(4), 363-399. doi:10.1177/002242702237285
  10. Martinson, R. (1974). What works? Questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35, 22-54.
  11. Mauer, M. (1999). Why are tough on crime policies so popular? Stanford law and policy review, 11, 9-15.

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