The failure of punishment to deter harmful behaviour is glaringly apparent in the daily choices of tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians.
The claims are familiar: punishing the wrongdoing of others acts as a deterrent. We talk about miscreants “learning their lesson” or “getting their just deserts”, or if not them, the application of pain or discomfort “delivers a message to others” which generally prevents crime – should someone dare contemplate a criminal act. We believe these things based on our experiences and the stories we tell or hear.
So why doesn’t it work?
Punishment requires that unwanted behaviour is prevented from occurring or reoccurring; if the forbidden behaviour is not extinguished, then punishment did not occur. However, we explain recidivism (repeat offending) not so much by the utter failure of punishment, but by the absence of severity, certainty or a swiftness of its application. Punishment only has to be more strategically applied for it to deliver the behavioural changes which it promises. However, since the days when pick-pockets risked death while working the crowds at London’s public executions during the Tudor reign, the evidence is stacked against this shibboleth.
If deterrent effect of punishment is the threat of unpleasant consequences, then we have many thousands of citizens who fail to be punished for their socially irresponsible behaviours. Consider the number of people who willfully engage in one or more risky, life-threatening behaviours:
- texting or talking while driving (the odds of crashing increase by five times when using a handheld device, whether dialing, texting, reading or using social media).
- smoking tobacco
- high risk driving
- overeating to the point of obesity
- driving without wearing a seatbelt
- driving after drinking alcohol
- having unprotected sex
- abusing prescription drugs
In all of the above harms, the risks are well-known to the population. But the prevalence of these behaviours suggests that the consequences (or punishment) is ineffective when it comes in the form of an analogous outcome: lethal or injurious car accidents, cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or addiction.
If the punishment of these common and harmful behaviours does not deter “ordinary” Canadians, why should we expect it to fix “criminals”? Maybe we don’t understand how punishment “works”, or if it works at all.