Issues related to Harsh Sentences and Mandatory Minimum Sentences: General Deterrence and Incapacitation

Compiled from Criminological Highlights by Anthony N. Doob (University of Toronto) Cheryl Marie Webster (University of Ottawa) Rosemary Gartner (University of Toronto)

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Table of contents:

  1. The effect of harsh penalties on crime
  2. Some unintended consequences of mandatory minimum penalties
  3. Certainty of Punishment
  4. Punitive policies and direct crime prevention: Incapacitation
  5. Highlights

The effect of harsh penalties on crime

There has been a substantial amount written on the issue of the general deterrent impact of sentencing. Essentially the traditional view of general deterrence was that by making sentences harsher, crime would decrease. The underlying theory is that if the ‘costs’ of offending are greater (where costs might be estimated as being the product of the likelihood of apprehension by the expected sentence) crime would decrease.

Looking carefully at the underlying theory makes it evident, first of all, that what might be called the “Deterrence Through Sentencing” hypothesis is a perceptual theory. The theory implies that for an increase in the severity of sentences to have an effect on crime, people would have to perceive that severity had increased. The actual penalty is not directly  important; it is the perception of the penalty that is likely to be imposed that is important.

One way in which governments have attempted to increase the actual – and the perceived – severity of sentences is by legislating mandatory minimum sentences. The deterrence justification for mandatory minimum sentences is that the presence of mandatory minimum sentences will be well known to the public who will see the sentences as harsh. In addition, of course, it is assumed that potential offenders will believe that if they offend there is a reasonable likelihood that this mandatory minimum sentence will be imposed.

The “Deterrence Through Sentencing” hypothesis is, of course, broader than the issue of mandatory minimum sentences or ‘three strikes’ models of sentencing. The research literature on general deterrence through harsh sentences is huge. A number of comprehensive summaries have been written, two of them by two of the authors of this compendium. (Doob, Anthony N. and Cheryl Marie Webster (2003). Sentence Severity and Crime: Accepting the Null Hypothesis. Tonry, Michael (ed.) Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. Volume 30. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (pages 143-195). Webster, Cheryl Marie and Anthony N. Doob (2012) Searching for Sasquatch: Deterrence of Crime Through Sentence Severity. Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections. Edited by Joan Petersilia and Kevin Reitz. New York: Oxford University Press (pages 173-195)). The chapter summarized on page B-1 (Page numbers for the Criminological Highlights summaries (Part B of this compendium) are to be found at the bottom right. (Other numbers that might be found on some pages relate to the original source of the summary)). is typical of these summaries.

The issue of general deterrence – the typical justification for mandatory minimum penalties – has been reviewed many times in the past 30 years or so. Some of the earlier work on this topic related to capital punishment. Although many observers concluded long ago that capital punishment does have an added deterrent impact (above whatever its alternative might be, see page B-2), research on this topic has continued (see, for example, page B-3).  At this point, we think it is fair to say that we know of no reputable criminologist who has looked carefully at the overall body of research literature on “deterrence through sentencing” who believes that crime rates will be reduced, through deterrence, by raising the severity of sentences handed down in criminal courts.

The evidence supporting this conclusion has been accumulating for decades. In the 1970s, thoughtful reviewers were cautious in their conclusions, suggesting only that the deterrent impact of harsh sentences had not been adequately demonstrated. More recently, we, and others, have been more definitive in our conclusions: crime is not deterred, generally, by harsher sentences. This is not, of course, a new conclusion.

John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, is quoted as saying that “Certainty of punishment, and more especially certainty that the sentence imposed by the judge will be carried out, is of more consequence in the prevention of crime than the severity of the sentence” (Richard J. Gwyn: John A: The Man Who Made Us (Random House Canada) p. 160). We suspect that what Macdonald meant by “the certainty that the sentence imposed by the judge will be carried out” is simply the certainty that there will be a criminal punishment. But whatever John A. Macdonald meant by that phrase, clearly he did not think that ‘severity’ of sentences was very important. He was almost certainly correct in this.

We will be focusing largely on the ‘severity’ component of general deterrence, and will refer to it, as in Webster and Doob (2012: 174; note 1) as the ‘Deterrence Through Sentencing” or DTS hypothesis. It is important to understand at least two restrictions on what we are referring to when we talk about DTS. In the first place, we are not concerning ourselves with that aspect of the general deterrence hypothesis related to certainty of apprehension and punishment. (Nor are we addressing another issue: the speed at which the penalty is imposed.) Few would deny that people are less likely to commit crimes if they think there is a high likelihood they will be apprehended and receive a punishment with sufficiently undesirable consequences.

Second, and equally important, when we refer to increases of punishment (or variation in punishment levels) we are referring only to punishments that are plausible in a western democracy. We do this for two reasons. First it is silly to talk about questions such as whether the death penalty would have more of a deterrent impact on shoplifting than a fine, or whether a fine of one dollar for an armed robbery would have the same impact as a long prison sentence. These extremes are not plausible penalties for these offences. The only plausible reason even to discuss them (at least that we can think of) is to examine the untested – and almost certainly incorrect – notion that the impact of penalties on behaviour is linear. A linear relationship, if it were to exist, would suggest that increases of equal size – e.g, a month – would have identical impacts on crime. Thus, a simple linear model would suggest that an increase from one month of imprisonment to two months of imprisonment would have the same ‘deterrent’ impact as an increase from 100 months to 101 months.

Even if DTS were effective, it seems unlikely that the impact would be linear. Second, interest in variation in sentence severity is focused on penalties that are harsh enough that people have an interest in avoiding receiving them, and not so harsh that they would never be imposed.

We will not be talking about these kinds of examples for yet another important reason: no evidence exists on their effects for the simple reason that there are no settings in which they take place.  In summary, when we talk about DTS (deterrence through sentencing) we will  be talking about variation in sentencing severity within ranges that are plausible within contemporary (western) society.

Included in Webster and Doob (2012: p. 175) is a table containing a list of reviews that have failed to conclude that DTS is a plausible way to reduce crime. (This list also includes two reviews that focus solely on the few studies purporting to show an effect of DTS. As noted, neither of those two authors claims to be providing a comprehensive summary of research.) What is interesting, in this context, is that even an economist who appears to believe in DTS has noted that the evidence has been elusive:

Our results suggest that criminals respond to the severity and not just the certainty of sentences, a result that is predicted by the economic model of crime but has proven elusive empirically. (Kessler and Levitt (1999) Journal of Law and Economics, 1999, 42, 343-363.)

Part of the reason we believe the safest overall conclusion on DTS is that harsher sentences do not deter more than less harsh sentences (when both are restricted to plausible ranges) is that Kessler and Levitt (the authors of the above-cited quotation) are correct: findings that are favourable to the DTS hypothesis are very elusive.

Research on the DTS question has used a number of different methods. In our view, the most persuasive studies are those carried out after about 1990. Typically these are ‘policy experiments’ in which the effects on crime of large changes in sentencing laws or practices can be evaluated. In general, the most comprehensive studies tend to show no overall  effects supportive of the DTS hypothesis.

The difficulty with many studies in this area is that problematic measures are used (see discussion in Doob and Webster 2003: 159-161 hereafter referred to as DW2003, see reference in note 1). For example, the description of a policy that increases the ‘risk of imprisonment’ seems to imply that it is examining a simple increase in the severity of punishment. However, it is equally possible that this increase could be driven, instead, by increases in risk of apprehension (DW2003: 185-7). Another problem is that the findings are inconsistent (DW2003: 161-2). Inconsistent results (e.g., across jurisdictions) are important, but can be cited selectively. We cite an example of this methodological error in a study purporting to examine the impact of executions on crime (See Webster and Doob, 2012, note 1, p. 186-187 hereafter referred to as WD2012). In this study, inconsistent results are described, in effect, as saying that the effect does not occur ‘everywhere.’ This ignores the possibility that inconsistent results - taken as a whole - could demonstrate no impact of  DTS. What accounts for inconsistency in findings is a separate question of no relevance here. The point is that an exclusive focus on ‘positive’ effects and a dismissal of other effects capitalizes on the unpredictability of crime rates.

The variation in results is a critical problem. In one study (see page B-4), the impact of the implementation of 3-strikes laws was examined across 7 offences and 21 states in which these laws were implemented.

Three strikes laws can be considered a special case of harsh sentencing practices whereby second and third time offenders are subject to increasingly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The exact nature of these laws varies across US states. For example, what constitutes previous ‘strikes’ varies. In some states, for the purposes of determining whether a person is eligible for an enhanced (harsher) mandatory minimum sentence, a second or third strike might be restricted to being a relatively serious felony. In other states, it is any felony in the offender’s past. Similarly, the offence that makes an offender eligible for harsh sentencing on the ‘third strike’ varies across states. Some states require only that it be any felony (and, therefore, it could be a relatively minor offence) and other states require that it be a more serious offence.

What 3-strikes sentencing laws have in common is that repeat offenders are subject to dramatically increased mandatory minimum sentences. Furthermore, these laws typically come into effect with a fair amount of publicity. However, they have not always been  crafted carefully enough to avoid problems (see page B-5), nor have they always had coherent objectives (see page B-7).

Publicity is critical for general deterrence because it is the belief or the perception that an offender will receive a very harsh sentence that, presumably (according to the DTS hypothesis), would inform the offender about the consequences. Hence, abrupt, well- publicized changes in penalty structures would be expected to be ‘easy’ tests for the DTS hypothesis.

In a rather comprehensive study (page B-4), data from 188 US cities were examined. Three- strikes legislation was brought into effect in 21 states. Hence, the non-3-strikes cities were used as controls and, importantly, various other controls (e.g., economic factors) were also included in the model. The data were examined separately for 7 offences (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto-theft). Though one could imagine there might be different effects for different crimes, it is harder to imagine why some states would show a deterrent effect and others would not.

Results – change in crime in the 5-year period following the change in sentencing laws – were calculated for each of the 7 crimes and for each state separately, resulting in 147 (7x21=147) different findings. These findings could show that crime decreased or increased, and the effects could be ‘statistically significant’ (unlikely to be due to simple chance variation) or ‘not significant’ (likely to be due to simple variation, from year to year, in crime rates occurring for no discernible reason). The results were remarkable and are shown in the following table.

Number of States showing an increase and decrease in crime following implementation of 3-strkes sentencing laws (5-year impact)

Adapted from Table 4, page 233, of the Kovandzic, Sloan and Vieraitis (2004)


Crime decreased significantly

Crime decreased, not significantly

Crime increased significantly

Crime increased, not significantly

Total states showing decrease

Total states showing increase












































Auto Theft







Total (across all 7 offences)













This table is, in fact, easy to read. As already mentioned, there were 147 separate ‘tests’ of  the DTS hypothesis. Looking at the bottom right, we see that in 72 of these tests, crime decreased (consistent with the DTS hypothesis). But in 75 of these tests, crime increased, not only not supporting the DTS hypothesis, but going directly against it.

In the final two columns of each row, we see that (with one exception) for each of the seven offences, almost exactly the same number of states showied a decrease in crime (consistent with the DTS hypothesis) as an increase in crime (directly counter to the DTS hypothesis).

Indeed, the only offence where there appears to be a substantial difference is homicide; it appears to increase following the implementation of sentences of increased severity (See page B-8).
The fact that so many of these findings are ‘statistically significant’ (i.e., not likely to be due to random variation) in both directions suggests that the variables that are examined – most notably the implementation of 3-strikes legislation – do not adequately account for changes in crime rates.

These findings are important for another reason. Isolated effects can easily be pointed to as suggesting that DTS ‘works’. In this study, for example, one could accurately state the following: “In Arkansas, after the implementation of 3-strikes legislation, there was a significant reduction in the crime rates for all 7 offences.” Though this might be true, it ignores the fact that the following statement also describes the findings accurately: “In Nevada, after the implementation of 3-strikes legislation, there was a significant increase in the crime rates for all 7 offences.” As there is no obvious reason for 3-strikes laws to have a deterrent effect in one state but the opposite effect in another state, it is much more likely that variation in crime in both states is due to factors other than 3-strikes laws. In other words, if one is going to “cherry pick” findings, one really needs to pick from both sides of the tree. The overall findings as shown in the table above tell the whole story: taken as a whole, there is no consistent evidence supporting the DTS hypothesis. (See also page B9).

When one looks carefully at some examples purporting to be ‘successful’ findings of DTS, one sometimes also sees problems of data selection (DW2003: 164-7) or inconsistent results (DW2003: 167-70). Occasionally, the data do not even appear to fit the description that is offered of them (DW2003: 170-173). One of the most highly cited studies purportedly showing a deterrent impact (Kessler and Levitt (1999) Journal of Law and Economics, 1999, 42, 343-363) was later shown to have demonstrated this impact only because of a peculiar decision to use only half of the available data. When complete data were examined, it was clear that the crime drop did not correspond with the change in the law. (Webster, Cheryl Marie, Anthony N. Doob and Franklin E. Zimring (2006) Proposition 8 and Crime Rates in California: The Case of the Disappearing Deterrent. Criminology and Public Policy, 5(3), 417-447)

Most importantly, for there to be plausible evidence of DTS, there needs to be an elimination of other simple explanations. In WD2012 (183-187), we discuss two sets of data (one of which is also summarized on page B-10) that have been used in recent years in Canada as evidence to suggest that DTS ‘works’. Both have serious problems, as described  in WD2012. Statements that DTS has been “supported” are not sufficient. One needs to examine the evidence that is presented. Hence, we believe it is important for  those interested in the DTS hypothesis to consider the large body of research, not individual studies taken out of this larger context.

One reason that the DTS hypothesis has survived this long without being completely rejected is that it appears intuitive – that is, until one considers, carefully, the steps that are necessary for it to be effective.
First, as already pointed out, the DTS hypothesis is inherently a ‘perceptual’ hypothesis. If people do not know there has been a change in the penalty structure, or if they are unaware that they will, if convicted, receive a harsh penalty, then the penalty cannot deter them. This is discussed in detail in DW2003, p. 181-184.

For a penalty to deter, people also have to think about the consequences of offending (rather than committing the offence in the heat of the moment, or thoughtlessly). In addition, they have to believe there is a reasonable likelihood that they will be apprehended. If they don’t think they will be caught, penalties are, by definition, irrelevant (no matter how harsh they are).

An additional problem is that people really don’t have much of an idea about what the sentences are likely to be for ordinary crimes (see page B-11). This can be demonstrated by asking ordinary people (who don’t work in the criminal justice system) what the penalty is for a serious, but all-too-common, offence: impaired driving (or driving with blood alcohol level of over 80 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood). Few people know the penalties  described in S. 255 of the Canadian Criminal Code, even though the penalties were changed relatively recently, presumably for deterrence purposes. If the penalties are not known, they can’t deter.

Another study (page B12) illustrates these problems quite well. Most offenders do not meet the relevant ‘thought’ requirements – that is, believing they might be caught and knowing the relevant penalty.

But most obviously, in the world in which we live, the DTS hypothesis must assume there is  a group of people in society who would commit the crime if they thought they would get the lower penalty, but would not do it for the higher penalty. Let’s consider one of the earliest changes in the penalty structure introduced by the Conservative Government of Canada after it formed the government in 2006: penalties for robbery (and various other offences) carried out with a firearm.

Beginning in 1996, the penalty for robbery with any firearm was a maximum of life in prison and a minimum of 4 years in penitentiary. The current government introduced legislation in its first session of Parliament in the spring of 2006 (Bill C-10, 39th Parliament, 1st session) raising the penalty for a first firearm robbery using a handgun or prohibited weapon, but not a rifle or shotgun, to 5 years. This amendment was eventually made law in the next session of Parliament as part of Bill C-2 (39th Parliament, 2nd session).

The government’s theory is obvious, and interesting. In effect, they are suggesting one of two possible deterrent mechanisms: 1) potential first time robbers will switch from a handgun to a shotgun or rifle (because the penalty is lower) or 2) potential first time robbers will desist from carrying out a robbery with a handgun, because of the possibility that they will be caught and convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to at least 5 years. The logic of increasing the penalty for robbery with a handgun or prohibited weapon (from 4 years to 5 years in prison) would appear to be that there are people who would commit the offence expecting to receive a 4 year prison sentence but would not commit the offence if it were increased to five years in prison. This is the only way in which this change in penalty could reduce robberies with a handgun or prohibited weapon.

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Some unintended consequences of mandatory minimum penalties

In his review of these issues, Tonry (page B-13) notes there are a number of ways in which ordinary criminal justice processes are impaired by mandatory minimum penalties. These include attempts to circumvent unduly harsh penalties (in effect, making discretion invisible- see page B-14) as well as the inappropriate use of prosecutorial discretion to extract a guilty plea (by agreeing to circumvent an unduly harsh penalty if a person pleads guilty). It appears that it is predictable when ‘mandatory’ minimums will be imposed (see page B-15). Among other factors that appear to be important in determining whether a person receives the ‘mandatory’ penalty is whether the defendant appears to be a ‘good’ person (see page B-16).

The effects, as summarized, are varied. Rigid penalty structures can impact negatively on the efficiency of courts (e.g., page B-17) and make sentencing less transparent (e.g., page B-18). They can also affect important matters such as trial rates (e.g. page B-19).

Another negative impact of rigid mandatory minimum sentences in that they can lead to dissimilar cases receiving similar sentences (see page B-20). To the extent that mandatory minimum sentences focus attention on simple matters (e.g., quantity of marijuana plants being cultivated, as is the case in the recent changes to the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act), other relevant factors (e.g., the role of the offender in the overall drug cultivation system) get lost.

Mandatory minimum sentences, which are typically set in a rather unsystematic way for single offences, often interfere with proportional sentences and, as a result, disrupt the processing of cases as well as the sentencing of offenders (See page B-21). Alternatively, when done broadly (as in the case of ‘3-strikes’ sentencing models), they can catch the wrong people and fail to have the promised impact (Page B-22).

Finally, since crime prevention resources in most jurisdictions are limited, it is useful to look at the relative effectiveness of a million dollars invested in increased punishment in comparison to the same amount invested elsewhere. At least one study (page B-23) found that investments in imprisonment do not pay off well compared to investments in drug treatment.

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Certainty of Punishment

We wouldn’t want to leave the discussion of the empirical work on deterrence without noting an obvious exception to the generalization that ‘deterrence’ is not an effective approach to crime prevention. That exception is the impact of certainty of apprehension and punishment. There are effective things that can be done by way of increasing the perceived likelihood of apprehension for offending. However, some of these effects are neither large nor long-lasting.

From a policy perspective, however, certainty of apprehension – or more importantly perceived certainty of apprehension – is difficult to accomplish. Something has to be done in addition to simply changing the law.

The studies summarized on pages B24 and B25 demonstrate that intensive police patrols can have an impact, though the impact may not remain after the intensity is reduced to ‘normal’ rates of patrols. Similarly, intensive crackdowns on guns can have at least temporary impacts (page B-26). Other forms of enforcement can also have an impact (page B-27). These kinds of findings are one reason one of the world’s experts on deterrence suggested that criminal justice resources targeted at ‘deterrence’ should focus on certainty, not severity (page B-28). However, it needs to be remembered that “certainty” and “perceived certainty” are both difficult to accomplish.

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Punitive policies and direct crime prevention: Incapacitation  

One seemingly incontrovertible fact about harsh penalties involving imprisonment is that when people are in prison, they are not committing offences in the community. By this argument, high imprisonment rates might be seen as almost automatically leading to crime reduction.

This simple hypothesis is, however, challenged by the findings (not covered in this report) demonstrating that imprisonment can make people more likely to reoffend once the sentence is complete. Said differently, people may not commit offences while incarcerated, but this ‘savings’ in public safety could be nullified (if not outweighed) if they are more likely to commit offences when released.

Another concern is that in some areas – drug production and distribution, for example – incapacitation-based policies seem to be based on the false assumption that there will be no replacement of producers or distributers of drugs. This is almost certainly not the case. The closing down of a marijuana ‘grow op’ will almost certainly not have any impact on the likelihood that drugs will be available on the street. And the evidence suggests that drug enforcement (which presumably is supposed to reduce availability of drugs) will not have an appreciable impact on drug prices (page B-29). Similarly, it has been argued (page B-30) that
attempts at controlling international drug trafficking may have even expanded the number of sources for drugs. More generally, however, people may go to prison as a result of increased enforcement, but there seems to be little impact on drug prices or drug availability.

The empirical findings on the impact of incapacitation are not encouraging. For example, there are serious problems in determining who is likely, in the future, to be a ‘high rate’ offender. Different definitions of ‘persistent young offenders’, for example, result in the identification of very different youths. And when a group is identified, members of that group may not be responsible for many very serious offences (see page B-31). Yet these are the offenders whom it would make most sense to incapacitate.

The problem is simple: Most of those predicted to be high rate offenders turn out not to be (B-32). More generally, it has been suggested that any crime control strategy based on intervening in the lives of those who are predicted to be ‘at risk’ for serious offending is likely to be ineffective (Page B-33 and B-34). There is an understandable criminological reason for this: as people get older they are increasingly less likely to offend. Thus, precisely at the time when people are identified – from past behaviour – to have been high rate offenders, their offending rate declines (see B-35).

More generally, however, criminal justice attempts to identify and incapacitate large numbers of apparently high rate serious offenders because of what they might do in the future are unlikely to have much impact precisely because these offenders would likely be given long prison sentences in any case (i.e., because of the seriousness of their offences and their long criminal records) (see page B-36). Jurisdictions that have attempted to deal with crime by increasing the size of their prison populations have not been successful (see page B-37).

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Volume 6, Number 2, December 2003: The imposition of harsher sentences does not deter crime.

Volume 1, Number 2, November 1997: Leading American criminologists and American police chiefs agree: The death penalty does not significantly reduce the number of homicides. Debates about the death penalty distract politicians from focusing on real solutions to crime problems, and politicians support the death penalty to show that they are “tough on crime”.

Volume 2, Number 5, September 1999: Capital punishment – an issue for Canadians that doesn’t ever seem to disappear from the public agenda – simply does not act as a deterrent to murder. Though the rate of executions in the U.S. appears high, and, relatively speaking, the homicide rate in many locations in the U.S. is lower than it has been for decades, a careful analysis demonstrates unequivocally that capital punishment does not deter.

Volume 7, Number 3, June 2005: A comprehensive study of crime in 188 U.S. cities demonstrates that three strikes laws did not lower crime rates.

Volume 1, Number 2, November 1997: The three strikes law in California was passed even though it was known by legislative committees to be seriously flawed, and even though it was known to imply heavy financial costs, and even though other “tougher” but more rational approaches were available. The political and criminological lessons from California’s experience should be learned by all.

Volume 3, Number 4, October 2000: Mandatory sentences fail again. The various goals associated with mandatory sentences in Australia have not been achieved and governments in Australia may have recognized this fact.

Volume 5, Number 2, October 2002: Can 3-strikes laws promote crime? Evidence has shown that this legislation does not reduce criminal activity through incapacitation or deterrence. This study suggests that these laws can actually promote killings.

Volume 1, Number 3, January 1998: California’s “3-Strikes” law strikes out again. Strike One: Its effect on crime through incapacitation will be minimal. Strike Two: If fully implemented, the increase in prison costs in the state will be roughly equivalent to the state’s current post-secondary education budget. This study throws Strike Three: it will not deter crime.

Volume 8, Number 1, June 2006: The State of Florida was wrong when, in 2004, it announced that a new law that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes had been directly responsible for a 28% reduction in violent gun crime rates.

Volume 7, Number 6, February 2006: Harsh sentences don’t deter crime in part because there is no relationship between the sentences that are handed down and people’s knowledge of those sentences.

Volume 12, Number 3, January 2012: Most active and violent offenders don’t think that they will be caught or have no idea what punishment to expect from their crimes if they were to be caught. More severe sentences would, therefore, have no impact on their likelihood of offending.

Volume 11, Number 1, February 2010: Numerous studies have shown that mandatory penalties do not affect crime rates. The evidence is equally consistent in showing that they interfere with accountability and the efficient operation of the criminal justice system.

Volume 6, Number 4, June 2004: When given the opportunity to impose sentences that were explicitly longer than would be considered proportionate to the gravity of the offence, judges in Victoria, Australia largely declined to do so, despite the popularity of these provisions with the public and politicians.

Volume 9, Number 5, February 2008: Mandatory minimum sentences aren’t really mandatory unless prosecutors wish to impose them. The decision to impose a mandatory minimum sentence is affected by factors that normally affect most sentences (e.g., the nature of the offence, the criminal record of the accused) as well as sex and race.

Volume 13, Number 4, June 2013: Prosecutors allow departures from “mandatory” sentences for drug offenders who appear to be ‘good’ people.

Volume 3, Number 3, July 2000: Three strikes puts courtroom officials in the hotbox: California’s three-strikes legislation has a disruptive impact on the processing of serious cases.

Volume 4, Number 2, July 2001: Why do judges not use draconian measures to deal with apparently dangerous offenders? Because these measures are in “conflict with fundamental principles and approaches of the common law… in particular proportionality, discretion, and natural justice” (p. 66).

Volume 2, Number 6, November 1999: Three strikes laws have had no impact on crime levels. More surprisingly, they have generally had little impact on the criminal justice system largely because they represented, to a great extent, more symbolic than real changes. Even in California, projected impacts were much less than expected. The major impact was predictable: prosecutors have increased their control over the criminal justice process.

Volume 11, Number 2, May 2010: Uniformity of sentences is not an appropriate goal for the sentencing process.

Volume 8, Number 4, January 2007: Oregon’s “get tough on crime” law, passed by voters in 1994, had an impact on the courts: trial rates increased for the first two years after the law came into effect. More people went to prison, and they went to prison for longer periods
of time.

Volume 10, Number 2, February 2009: The future impact of laws that ‘toughen’ sentences can be modelled. In California, legislative efforts to toughen sentencing laws have had – and will continue to have -dramatic effects on the size of the prison population. Tis increase consists largely of drug – not violent - offenders.

Volume 1, Number 6, September 1998: Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are shown to be less effective than treatment in reducing the use of cocaine.

Volume 12, Number 3, January 2012: Very intensive foot patrols by police can have an impact on street crime.

Volume 13, Number 3, April 2013: Intensive foot patrols by police can reduce street crime, but the effects don’t last after police strength is reduced to normal.

Volume 7, Number 6, February 2006: Though not all police crackdowns on gun violence are effective, some seem to be able to suppress gun violence, at least temporarily.  

Volume 10, Number 5, September 2009: Increasing the certainty of punishment for illegal acts can be effective in reducing offending and may generalize to circumstances in which the objective likelihood of apprehension has not changed.

Volume 11, Number 6, April 2011: Rather than focusing on severity-based policies that increase already harsh sentences, policy makers should shift their attention to programs that use the police to make the risks and consequences of crime more clear and certain. Such a policy shift holds the promise of reducing both crime and imprisonment.

Volume 11, Number 5, January 2011: Intensive enforcement of drug laws appears to be an ineffective way of increasing the price of illicit drugs.

Volume 3, Number 6, February 2001: The warriors against drugs should look at the historical record of trying to suppress opium use. Attempts at suppressing drugs have had the paradoxical effect of increasing supplies and markets.

Volume 1, Number 3, January 1998: Persistent young offenders typically commit the same kinds of offences as other young offenders—only more of them. Who qualifies as “persistent” is arbitrary and those identified by one definition at one point in time would not be the same people identified as “persistent” if the definition or time period were slightly changed.

Volume 3, Number 1, March 2000: Can crime be reduced effectively by identifying offenders likely to re-offend and incarcerating them? The answer is simple: No.

Volume 10, Number 5, September 2009: Relying on statistical predictions of which individuals will be high rate offenders
is not likely to affect the level of crime in a community.

Volume 10, Number 6, December 2000: Using “risk” as the basis of criminal justice decisions can be risky: Such decisions may turn out to be less accurate than anticipated and may undermine other important principles.

Volume 11, Number 3, July 2010: It is impossible to predict at an early age who will turn out to be a ‘high rate’ or serious offender. What can be predicted is that people become less likely to re-offend as they grow older no matter what their early pattern of offending looks like.

Volume 4, Number 3, September 2001: Habitual offender laws --thosethat incarcerateapparently high rateoffendersfor long periodsof time --may haveasmall impact on crime,but only becauseof incapacitation (and not deterrent) effects. In any case, even rather draconian laws, like those in the State of Florida, have “not been very effective in reducing crime” (p. 201).

Volume 9, Number 2, December 2007: Counties in Florida that increased the size of their prison populations received no benefit in terms of a reduction in local crime rates.

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