If America wants to prevent another event like Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC, officials should make all efforts possible to arrest and prosecute every single person involved in the violent protests — events that some branded as an attempted coup by President Donald Trump and his supporters.
This is not simply a matter of vengeance. It’s a real-world example of a common concept in criminological theory focusing on the best way to use punishment to deter future crimes.
In criminology, there are three levers for fighting crime, as the late Mark Kleiman previously explained: swiftness (how quickly someone is punished), certainty (the likelihood someone is punished), and severity (how harsh a person’s punishment is) — established way back in the 1700s by an Italian criminologist called Cesare Beccaria.
Much of the attention in US debates about criminal justice policy goes to severity of punishment — essentially, debates over how harsh or long a prison sentence should be. This has been the lever that public policy has largely relied on over the past few decades, contributing to the buildup of mass incarceration.
But severity is, based on the available evidence, actually the weakest of these levers. So simply making punishments very harsh doesn’t seem effective for deterring crime. What criminologists have found is that the certainty of punishment is far more important.
A 2010 review of the research by the Sentencing Project supported this. It pointed to a study by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University in 1999 that concluded “the studies reviewed do not provide a basis for inferring that increasing the severity of sentences generally is capable of enhancing deterrent effects.” Other studies reviewed by the researchers found that an increased likelihood of apprehension and punishment — greater certainty — was linked to falling crime rates.
The US National Institute of Justice agreed in 2016: “Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.”
To some degree, this is common sense: People tend to commit crimes thinking they’ll get away with them, so whether they’re punished by 10, 20, or 100 years in prison is really not important to their calculus of whether to commit a crime. But if you change their notion that they can get away with crime by making it more likely the criminal justice system will punish them, then you can make an impact.
To put it another way: If Wednesday’s rioters get away with violently shutting down the workings of the federal government, it will send a message to them — as well as to other people interested in carrying out political violence — that this behavior is, if not okay, at least something they can get away with. That would invite copycats.
The good news is, much of the day’s events were recorded and photographed, with some demonstrators gleefully streaming their actions and posing for photos as they trespassed and looted the Capitol and congressional offices. If they’re serious about punishing these wrongdoers, police could use this evidence, as well as typical investigative tactics, to track down the hundreds of people involved (beyond the 13 already reportedly arrested by the police).
But that’s the rub: Officials have to be serious about punishing these wrongdoers. Otherwise, they’ll send a signal that what transpired on Wednesday was actually fine, making it more likely to happen again.