Less Crime Without More Punishment

David J. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


At its best, criminology is a dialogue between theories of crime and evidence about behaviour and social practices. The purpose of the enterprise is to inform moral and political choices. A particularly important decision, which ought to be illuminated by criminological theory and evidence, is whether to punish more, or to use alternative methods of tackling crime. This article argues that it is possible to have less crime without more punishment. Comparisons between trends in crime and punishment in the United States and England and Wales between 1981 and 1994 show an association between changes in the crime rate and changes in the probability of punishment, given an offence. However, three lines ofargument can be developed against the proposition that changes in the probability ofpunishment caused changes in the crime rate. First, it is more likely that the causal arrow points the other way. Second, detailed causal mechanisms have not been adequately described, and there is little evidence to support any particular description. Third, trends in crime and punishment in Scotland do not fit well with the hypothesis. Crime survey results suggest there has been little increase in crime in Scotland since 1981, without any appreciable increase in the quantity or probability of punishment. The enormous post-war growth in crime in the developed world, and the subsequent reversal of this trend, are linked to a range offundamental social and economic changes, which have probably beenfar more influential than the criminaljustice system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)294-316
JournalEdinburgh Law Review
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1999


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