A rich body of literature exists on deterrence, yet little is known about how deterrence messages are communicated through social networks. This is an important gap in our understanding, because such communication gives rise to the possibility that social institutions can utilize the vicarious effect of the threat of punishment against one individual to reduce the rate of reoffending amongst their criminal associates. To test this, we identified criminals with an extensive offending history (prolific offenders) and their co-offenders using social network analysis and then conducted a randomized controlled trial to measure the effect on both prolific offenders and their cooffenders of delivering a “specific deterrence” message. The treatment— preemptive engagements with prolific offenders by a police officer offering both ‘carrots’ (desistance pathways) and ‘sticks’ (increased sanction threat)—was applied to the prolific offenders, but not to their co-offenders. The outcomes suggest that a single officer–offender engagement leads to a crime suppression effect in all comparisons, with 21.3%, 11.0%, and 15.0% reductions for specific, vicarious, and total network deterrence effects, respectively. The findings suggest that (a) social network analysis based on in-house police records can be used to cartographically understand social networks of offenders, with an aim of preventing crime; (b) deterrence messages promulgated by the police have the capacity to reduce crime beyond what was previously assumed, as the cascading of threats in cooffending relationships carries a vicarious crime reduction impact; (c) unlike “reactive specific deterrence” (i.e., a threat of punishment following a specific and detected crime) which can have perverse effects on certain offenders, preventative specific deterrence is a promising crime policy.
Reducing the incidence of crime is a primary task of the criminal justice system and one for which it rightly should be held accountable. The system’s success is frequently judged by the recidivism rates of those who are subject to various criminal justice interventions, from treatment programs to imprisonment. This Article suggests that, however popular, recidivism alone is a poor metric for gauging the success of criminal justice interventions or of those who participate in them. This is true primarily because recidivism is a binary measure, and behavioral change is a multi-faceted process. Accepting recidivism as a valid, stand-alone metric imposes on the criminal justice system a responsibility beyond its capacity, demanding that its success turn on transforming even the most serious and intractable of offenders into fully law-abiding citizens. Instead of measuring success by simple rates of recidivism, policymakers should seek more nuanced metrics. One such alternative is readily available: markers of desistance. Desistance, which in this context means the process by which individuals move from a life that is crime-involved to one that is not, is evidenced not just by whether a person re-offends but also by whether there are increasing intervals between offenses and patterns of de-escalating behavior. These easily obtainable metrics, which are already widely relied on by criminologists, can yield more nuanced information about the degree to which criminal justice interventions correlate with positive (or negative) life changes. They also resemble more closely the ways in which other fields that address behavioral change such as education attempt to measure change over time. Measuring the success of criminal justice interventions by reference to their effects on desistance would mean seeking evidence of progress, not perfection. Such an approach would allow criminal justice agencies to be held accountable for promoting positive change without asking them to do the impossible, thereby creating new pathways by which the criminal justice system could be recognized for achieving real and measurable progress in crime reduction.
The peculiar harshness of modern American justice has led to a vigorous scholarly debate about the roots of mass incarceration and its divergence from humanitarian sentencing norms prevalent in other Western democracies. Even though the United States reached virtually world-record imprisonment levels between 1983 and 2010, the Supreme Court never found a prison term to be “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. By countenancing extreme punishments with no equivalent elsewhere in the West, such as life sentences for petty recidivists, the Justices’ reasoning came to exemplify the exceptional nature of American justice. Many scholars concluded that punitiveness had become its defining norm.
Yet a quiet revolution in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, a wave of reforms, and other social developments suggest that American penal philosophy may be inching toward norms—dignity, proportionality, legitimacy, and rehabilitation—that have checked draconian prison terms in Europe, Canada, and beyond. In 2010, the Supreme Court began limiting the scope of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles in a series of landmark Eighth Amendment cases. Partly drawing upon the principles in these decisions, twenty-two states have abolished life without parole categorically for juveniles, providing them more protections than under the Eighth Amendment. The narrow focus on the differences between juveniles and adults in the aftermath of these reforms obscured American law’s increasing recognition of humanitarian norms that are hardly age-dependent—and strikingly similar to those in other Western democracies. Historiography sheds light on why the academy has largely overlooked this relative paradigm shift. As America faced mass incarceration of an extraordinary magnitude, research in recent decades has focused on divergence, not convergence.
This Article advances a comparative theory of punishment to analyze these developments. In the United States and throughout the West, approaches toward punishment are impermanent social constructs, as they historically tend to fluctuate between punitive and humanitarian concerns. Such paradigm shifts can lead to periods of international divergence or convergence in penal philosophy. Notwithstanding the ebb and flow of penal attitudes, certain long-term trends have emerged in Western societies. They encompass a narrowing scope of offenders eligible for the harshest sentences, a reduction in the application of these sentences, and intensifying social divides about their morality. Restrictions on lifelong imprisonment for juveniles and growing social polarization over mass incarceration in the United States may reflect this movement. However, American justice appears particularly susceptible to unpredictable swings and backlashes. While this state of impermanence suggests that the reform movement might reverse itself, it also demonstrates that American justice may keep converging toward humanitarian sentencing norms, which were influential in the United States before the mass incarceration era.
Two patterns regarding the broader evolution of criminal punishment ultimately stand out: cyclicality and steadiness of direction. The patterns evoke a seismograph that regularly swings up or down despite moving steadily in a given direction. American justice may cyclically oscillate between repressive or humanitarian aspirations, and simultaneously converge with other Western democracies in gradually limiting or abolishing the harshest punishments over the long term.