There is a tendency to believe that longer sentences deter individuals from offending, and re-offending. However, evidence proves that the recidivism rate of individuals given longer sentences is not significantly decreased due to their long sentence. This was recently borne out in New Zealand, where a brave judge finally called out the Crown on their reliance on the need for a long sentence to deter others.
In the case, Justice Matthew Palmer of the New Zealand court was faced with a difficult sentencing task: choosing whether to give a person a long jail term for a serious offence or not. Obviously that task is going to weigh heavily on the mind of any judge. This case was complicated by the fact that the judge was required to sentence two siblings for their role as couriers in a methamphetamine trafficking ring.
The Crown emphasized the principle of denunciation and deterrence, and indicated that a longer sentence would deter other offenders in the future. Justice Palmer had a simple question for the Crown: show me the proof. He adjourned the sentencing and asked the Crown to come back with research to show that longer sentences tended to deter others, and deter the individual storm future conduct. Care to guess the results?
Crown counsel evidently turned up short, not being able to show significant evidence that longer sentences actually deter individuals from offending, and re-offending. Defence brought forward evidence showing exactly the opposite effect – citing studies showing that longer sentences are not effective in the deterrence of others, or of the offenders themselves. Defence also was able to show that likelihood of repeat offending is higher when someone was given a prison sentence rather than an alternative sentence. The issue with deterrence is that it does not take into account individuals whose actions were affected by alcohol, drugs, or mental illness. Ultimately, Justice Palmer said that long sentences are not justified if there is no proof to suggest that they work as a deterrent.
This decision has fantastic application to Canadian courts. Particularly so in the impaired driving and drug trafficking context. Often the individuals who are most affected by drug trafficking are those who are drug-addicted themselves, and who are trafficking to support their own drug habits. For impaired drivers, especially those who injure or kill, long jail sentences have become very common. Despite this, rates of impaired driving are not declining. Alcohol inhibits judgment. Inhibited judgment does not allow a person to consider the deterrent effect of long sentences. I think any sober person would readily that impaired driving causing death or injury is, like, really bad.
Research from New Zealand, by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, who had studied tough-on-crime statistics, found that there is no evidence that harsher sentences have a deterrent effect on individuals, whether they be the offender themselves, or those within the community. Criminologist from Victoria University, Dr. Liam Martin, speaks of deterrence along two strands. One being that the wider community is unlikely to offend because of long sentences being given. The second strand being the individual offender does not go on to commit further crime because of the length of the sentence they were given. Dr. Martin states that there is an extremely large body of evidence to show that implementing long sentences does not lessen the likelihood of crime, rather; many people go on to commit more crime.
The question is why are long prison sentences still being used when, as highlighted above, deterrence has little influence, especially on those individuals whose actions were affected by alcohol, drugs, or mental illness?
If we are subjecting individuals to long prison sentences to show them what they have done wrong, and to “deter” them in the future is that we are clogging up the system. Our justice system is already dealing with severe backlog. Implementing long sentences as a way to “deter” has been proven insignificant, with no evidence proving that long prison sentences actually have a deterrent effect on offenders. Why waste the time, effort, and resources of our justice system to process and lock up individuals that will not benefit from their apprehension? Why not shift that time, effort, and resources to providing these individuals, especially those facing impaired charges, with access to alternative measures (community service, probation, counselling, and rehabilitation).
As the court concluded in this case, repeat offending is lower in individuals who are given alternative sentences. Although long sentences may seem like a good option when it comes to offenders, the reality is that it is an ineffective and costly measure with no real results.
Vancouver Criminal Lawyer with a focus on impaired driving, marijuana legalization and related issues, and immediate roadside prohibition defence.