The Fallacy of Bettering the Justice System Through Lenient Criminal Sentences

Second Look bills, such as the one that recently passed the Senate Committee in Virginia would give offenders a chance to file petitions for release or modification of the sentences they received after having served 15 years, no matter what their crime was. 

As attorney Hans Bader notes: “Judges wouldn’t have to grant the petitions, but they could if they think an inmate has mended his ways. Under the bill, an inmate could be released, despite any ‘combination of any convictions,’ such as being convicted of both murders and rapes.”

Generally, longer sentences are served for violent crimes. And, despite some claiming otherwise, longer sentences have been associated with less recidivism, as the key findings of a long term study of the United States Sentencing Commission show:

  • “The results of this study, examining federal offenders released in 2010, are almost identical to the findings established in prior Commission research examining federal offenders released in 2005. In both studies, the odds of recidivism were lower for federal offenders sentenced to more than 60 months incarceration compared to a matched group of offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • “The odds of recidivism were approximately 29 percent lower for federal offenders sentenced to more than 120 months incarceration compared to a matched group of federal offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • “The odds of recidivism were approximately 18 percent lower for offenders sentenced to more than 60 months up to 120 months incarceration compared to a matched group of federal offenders receiving shorter sentences.
  • “For federal offenders sentenced to 60 months or less incarceration, the Commission did not find any statistically significant differences in recidivism.”

The prevailing idea that a more lenient criminal system would help those who have made wrong decisions once (or a few times) in their lives get back on the straight and narrow is thus a difficult one to sustain. 

Such points of view underline the importance of reeducation and rehabilitation, giving lawbreakers a second chance rather than ‘throwing them away forever’ and ignoring their rights. And while one might understand this thought process when it comes to theft or non-violent crimes (although the behavioral patterns which lead to these actions are not conducive to a balanced life style and, in general, good decision-making), one cannot make the same allowance for violent crime.


When it comes to rape, murder, kidnaping, torture, etc., not only is there much data showing that there often is a great risk of recidivism upon release, common sense suggests that advocating for a more lenient criminal system is a dangerous game to play. 

Does a child rapist or murderer pose a threat to society? Yes. Will he in the future? Yes. Why? Because of the underlining thought process and pathology which led him to commit the monstrous acts in the first place. Is society safer with such people off the streets? Absolutely! This is just common sense.

We know harsh punishments are a good deterrent for crimes, even though they might not be enough.

 It is also likely that many of these crimes might happen because of underlying issues with the current family structure breakdown.

When children grow up in violent homes and neighborhoods, without proper guidance, it is almost inevitable for them to develop survival mechanisms which turn their mind frame from seeking law abiding success to, at first life-defending, then life-defining violence. 

Even the reality of growing up in a single-parent household puts children at risk for less than favorable behavior patterns. Environments that are dangerous to children can breed pathology as well, perhaps as another coping mechanism in a world of wild and uncontrollable realities. 

When survival is not guaranteed by caregivers, it will be achieved through force by those motivated strongly enough to stay alive. So, the first step in crime prevention is to prevent the formation of criminal behavior, typically from traumatizing childhood environments.

The recent Heritage Foundation event, “The Myths of Mass Incarceration and Overpolicing” emphasized the importance of looking at the situation realistically and being careful to identify the correct issues in order to be able to implement the right solutions.

Poverty, police discrimination, or overzealousness were not identified as the main issues leading to violent crime, which as Manhattan Institute Researcher Raphael Mangual emphasizes, is hyper-concentrated in small geographic areas around the U.S., areas that also tend to have very particular demographic characteristics.

In fact, as Professor Emeritus Barry Latzer noted during the same event the idea of “mass incarceration” itself is erroneous, as most crimes tend to go unpunished. And a more lenient criminal system always seems to lead to a spike in crime, unsurprisingly. 

Both speakers outlined a solid case for the reexamination of the often perpetuated narrative or systemic racism and mass incarceration in the U.S. in their books, Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most (Raphael Mangual), and, The Myth of Overpunishment: A Defense of the American Justice System and a Proposal to Reduce Incarceration While Protecting the Public (Barry Latzer).

Thus, not only is the predominant narrative problematic, that incarceration is somehow an act of discrimination instead of a response to a surge in crime, but the solution is also erroneously proposed by those opposing stricter punishment. 

It is not a tolerant criminal sentence system that will slow down crime (in fact, data points to the contrary) but rather attempts to fix the breakdown of the family structure, along with support for families and children’s well-being, and an increase in the harshness of the punishments that will lead many to finally conclude that crime does indeed not pay.


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