Connecticut built new prisons several years ago on the assumption that getting serious on crime would deter serious criminals. Prison beds expanded, and they were soon filled. Some on the left have now concluded that punishment does not deter criminals. They are suggesting treatment programs for drug crimes; this, they say, will release more beds for serious criminals and, in the long run save us some money.
The question of decriminalization may not be wholly a right, left issue. It’s been more than three years since Bill Buckley, hardly a man of the left, suggested that the use of marijuana for medical relief should be decriminalized. In arguing for limited decriminalization, Buckley suggested that the “stodgy inertia most politicians feel” when they address the issue of limited decriminalization should give way to “a creeping reality.” Buckley noted that “Professor Ethan Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, writing in National Review, estimates at 100,000 the number of Americans currently behind bars for one or another marijuana offense.” Those are a lot of prison beds that otherwise might be devoted to hardened and violent criminals. Staking out a position on the decriminalization of marijuana no longer will get you uninvited as a speaker to the usual conservative platforms. On the other hand, to say that punishment does not deter crime or to suggest that all crime should be treated as if it were a medical disorder is dangerously obtuse.
The figures do not suggest that punishment does not deter crime; they may suggest that some punishments do not deter some criminals. The possibility of imprisonment or execution seems to have less a deterrent effect on crimes of passion. What prison program or punishment – other than execution -- could have been offered to prevent Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two petty burglars, from invading Dr. Pettit’s house in Cheshire, beating the doctor with a baseball bat, raping his wife and daughter, then murdering both and another daughter by setting fire to the house?
In one respect, at least, the whole question of deterrence is a red herring. If it is true that no punishment deters convicted criminals released into society – very doubtful – the “truth” would not relieve us of the necessity of punishing, for two reasons: The punishment may deter prospective non-career criminals; and justice requires punishment. No punishment, no justice.