The myth of deterrence
Glenn Tucker

Prime Minister Andrew Holness was in Montego Bay recently to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Member of Parliament Edmund Bartlett's highly successful East Central St James Education Fund.

During his address, he said Cabinet was expected to finalise proposals to make the death penalty automatic punishment for capital murder, and 45 years imprisonment would be the minimum sentence for other homicides. "It will look like this," he said, "...for capital murder, the penalty is death. If not applied, then life imprisonment without parole. For non-capital murder, we recommend that the penalty will now be life imprisonment, and you must serve 45 years before consideration of parole."

"If you take a life, and you are convicted of such, your useful life should be taken," a tough-talking Holness insisted.

I have no doubt that many feel heartened by this disclosure. But does the severity of punishment, known as marginal deterrence, have any natural deterrent effect on reducing recidivism?

Deterrence is an area that is plagued by assumptions. Unfortunately, it is under-researched here and abroad. There are several common narratives about deterrence that are questionable, such as assuming the offender knows the law and is aware of the penalties.

Another assumption is that people who commit crimes engage in a rational calculation of the likelihood that they will be apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted.

UNSW law professor, David Brown, says, "Deterrence is an article of faith largely...I call it sentencing's dirty secret because it's just assumed that there is deterrence, but what the research has shown is that the system has little to no deterrent effect."

The criminal justice researcher says harsher punishments, such as longer prison sentences, not only do not prevent crime but may actually have the opposite effect. "What research is showing is that imprisonment itself and punishment, generally, is criminogenic — it makes it more likely that people are going to reoffend."

Professor Brown goes on to say, "The severity of punishment, known as marginal deterrence, has no real deterrent effect or the effect of reducing recidivism…A large number of crimes are what we call expressive crimes, that is, they are affected by anger, rage, depression, drug or alcohol use, and indicators of psychological disturbances. So people are not thinking rationally, calculatingly, using cost-benefit of whether the punishment outweighs the benefit."

The professor seems to have a point. We only have to look at the high rate of repeat offenders to know that imprisonment does not reduce further crime. I have found that inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitise many to the threat of future imprisonment.

State minister in the Ministry of National Security Zavia Mayne said Jamaica has a recidivism rate of 40 per cent.

There are a number of civil disabilities that stem from imprisonment, such as exclusion from the job market, deskilling, and lack of access to housing, which leads offenders back to crime.

Imprisonment hinders the possibility of people making reparation by paying off debt and increases the likelihood of homelessness, and in some cases can break up the family.

But does the death penalty deter crime, especially murder? A new survey by The New York Times found that states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than states with the death penalty. The Times reports that 10 of the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates below the national average, whereas half of the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above. During the last 20 years, the homicide rates in states with the death penalty have been in the range of 48 per cent to 101 per cent higher than in states without the death penalty. The average murder rate per 100,000 people in 1999 among death penalty states in the US was 5.5, whereas the average murder rate among non-death penalty states was only 3.6.

America's neighbour to the north, Canada, abolished the death penalty in 1975. Some 27 years later, the murder rate has fallen by 44 per cent. Far from making society safer, the death penalty has been shown to have a brutalising effect.

Keeping my ears to the ground in Jamaica, I have found that contract killers and others who plan to kill are not scared by talk of tougher penalties or the death penalty. The effect it has is that they become more sophisticated in their planning and the elimination of witnesses.

There are many good arguments for reducing long-term incarceration and eliminating the death penalty. If there are lengthy incarcerations, there should be social policies for reducing long-term unemployment; increasing adult education; providing stable accommodation; and increasing average weekly earnings and various treatment programmes that will bring about reductions of reoffending.

Most importantly, individuals who have deprived others of their breadwinners and loved ones should be required to work and earn during incarceration to help provide for the needs of the dependents of their victims. Where feasible, their property should be converted for the same purpose.

What I have learnt from my observation of contract killers is that the certainty of being caught and handed over to a functioning justice system is a vastly more powerful deterrent than any threat of punishment. In fact, it is the only deterrent I know.

We also need to reorientate courts towards a triage station approach which addresses the social, economic, and cultural problems that lead people into offending.

The death penalty has no deterrent effect. Death penalty laws falsely convince the public that the Government has taken adequate measures to combat crime and homicide. In reality, however, such laws do nothing to protect us from the acts of dangerous criminals.

People who believe, against all evidence, that harsher penalties reduce crime do so because they want to think it is true. Any evidence that suggests that it is true will be taken as gospel truth. Contradictory evidence will be dismissed because it is contradictory.

Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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