Does harsh punishment reduce crime? The opposite is true at least in some cases according to an article by Emile Bazelon printed in The New York Times on February 5th. Bazelon cites studies which show that leniency, prosecuting some crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies for example, can cut recidivism significantly, sometimes to less than one half. Those punished with other than prison time, are more likely to get a job and not offend again. Bazelon writes:
Accumulating research in well-designed studies supports the idea, counterintuitive though it may seem, that prosecuting fewer people can actually reduce crime. Last year, for instance, researchers looked at more than 67,000 misdemeanor cases in Suffolk County, Mass., which includes Boston, and found that people arrested but not charged for offenses like drug possession and shoplifting were less than half as likely as those who were prosecuted to be arrested again two years later for a new crime.
Counterintuitive it is. Politicians are not criminologists. When they address complex issues like crime and punishment, they may speak out of ignorance, or perhaps seeking to mislead.
There is no relationship between a harsh punishment and crime reduction. Like any attempt to stop bad behavior, it is not the harshness of the punishment that deters. It is the possibility or probability of being caught .