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Short prison sentences lead to more repeat crime

Adults are more likely to offend again after a short prison sentence than comparable adults with a non-custodial sentence, according to research by Leiden University and the NSCR. This applies to both the chance of repeat crime and the number of repeat offenses. Moreover, the differences do not only apply in the short term, but remain visible over a longer period. For example, a short prison sentence leads to a 55 percent increase in repeat crime in the first five years after release compared to community service.
By Prof. Arjan Blokland | 21 November 2022 | Life-course

The study 'Een oude vraag opnieuw onderzocht: effecten van korte gevangenisstraffen ten opzichte van niet-vrijheidsbenemende straffen op recidive op basis van een instrumentele variabele benadering', published in Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, is part of the Veni research of associate professor Hilde Wermink. She collaborated with (inter)national colleagues with different expertise in economics, criminology, criminal law and sociology. Within the study – for the first time in the Netherlands – an econometric method was applied so that the groups of offenders are comparable on all other characteristics. Wermink: "The effect found is therefore really caused by the punishment and not by other characteristics. That is important in this case, because we want to compare apples with apples." Data from more than forty thousand adults was analyzed to determine the effects.

Short imprisonment does not lead to less repeat crime for any group

In many countries, imprisonment is the harshest and most expensive punishment that can be imposed. The Dutch court opts for a prison sentence more often than for any other type of punishment: more than thirty thousand prison sentences are imposed each year, compared to twenty-six thousand community service and fourteen thousand fines. Wermink: "The idea is that heavier sentences have a deterrent effect and that it deters people from committing a new offense. However, practice shows a different picture. A heavier sentence does not lead to less crime. On the contrary, we consistently find a higher rate of repeat offenses after short prison sentences than after a non-custodial sentence. This applies to juveniles, young adults and adults, and to suspects who are being punished for the first time and to those who are already familiar with the justice system. No group has been found for whom a short prison sentence leads to less repeat crime."

Social support network, housing and income losses

If a Dutch court imposes a prison sentence, in most cases it will be a short prison sentence. For example, three-quarters of prison sentences last a maximum of six months and two-thirds do not even exceed three months. Wermink: "These sentences seem too short to work on rehabilitation, because the possibilities for this are very limited within the available time. At the same time, the prison sentences seem severe enough to have a negative effect on the conventional capabilities of the punished. After all, imprisonment can cause individuals to lose their social support network, home and income. In addition, the stigma attached to the prison sentence and the pro-criminal prison setting can lead to greater relapse rates than non-custodial sentences.”

Preventive effects imprisonment limited

More goals play a role in the discussion about the effectiveness of punishments. In addition to the intended effect of preventing repeat crime, prison sentences can also prevent offenses during the duration of the sentence, i.e. the containment effect. It is also assumed that it has a general preventive effect, because the punishments, in addition to the punished themselves, also deter other potential offenders from committing crimes. However, the literature shows that these effects are limited. This certainly applies to (extremely) short prison sentences.

Wider focus on non-custodial sentences

In addition, punishments also serve to retaliate for the suffering inflicted on the victims. To the extent that short prison sentences better meet this need than non-custodial sentences, they would be preferable for that reason alone. On the other hand, the subsequent criminal offenses that, according to this study, are the result of a short prison sentence, lead to higher financial costs and more future victims.
Preventing recidivism is a core task within judicial policy. The results of this research show that a broader focus on non-custodial sentences instead of short prison sentences can be one way to achieve this.

Publication details and further reading

Wermink, H., Blokland, A., Tollenaar, N., Schuyt, P. & Apel, R. (2022). Een oude vraag opnieuw onderzocht: effecten van korte gevangenisstraffen ten opzichte van niet-vrijheidsbenemende straffen op recidive op basis van een instrumentele variabele benaderingTijdschrift voor Criminologie, 2022 (64) 2.

Questions? Please contact F. van den Driesche, communications officer Leiden Law School, via f.van.den.driesche@law.leidenuniv.nl  or +31 (0)71527 5256.

Prof. Arjan Blokland

Senior Researcher

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