Does deterrence work?

by Chris Hay, Executive Director, John Howard Society of Alberta

What is the purpose of the criminal justice system?  Does it exist for rehabilitation?  For changing behavior?  For societal protection?  For show?  For the creation of safer communities?  For punishment?  For deterrence? 

One could argue that it is here for each of these and possibly more.  But what is the “justice” system really good at? 

The argument is that it is best at punishment, and that punishment is dolled out for the purpose of deterrence.  That is, if we punish you, you and others will then be deterred from committing future criminal offenses. 

But we all know that the system tends to be a revolving door for many of those struggling with mental illness, addictions, poverty, trauma and so on and, therefore, deterrence does not occur. 

So why then do we support a system, which at the most basic level, seems to exist to support punishment models for the purpose of deterrence?  If this is the case, what does deterrence in theory require to actually work in practice?  Why might striving for this be one of the most fundamental errors our “justice” system makes? 

I’ll talk more about deterrence in my next post, but for now, what do you think about deterrence?