Does “Getting Tough” On Crime Really Work?

Does “Getting tough” on crime became a popular notion in 1970’s America. Since that time, America has increasingly jailed/imprisoned offenders at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Though some people strongly believe in “getting tough,” there are now serious questions about the cost effectiveness and wisdom of that harsh approach. Several experts believe that “getting tough” is not the answer and that a more scientific, comprehensive approach is needed to effectively deal with our high crime rate.

The “get tough” approach to crime is favors a more severe answer to crime, including more arrests and more jail sentences. This has been a popular approach in America since the 1970’s and as a result, the United States has increased its jail population to 5 times the jail population we had in the 1970’s. With more than 2.3 million incarcerated people as of 2011, America has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on decades of this “get tough” approach. People who support this “get tough” approach believe that the United States must use it: to fight the alarming increase in crime by an approach that is effective because crime decreased when incarceration rose in the 1990’s; and because government should be seen to be tough on crime. Consequently, despite the high costs and other problems related to getting tough, one faction believes that getting tough is the vital approach to rising crime rates.

In response to the difficulties, expense and apparent failures of getting tough on crime, an anti-“get tough” faction has grown in strength. This faction argues that: getting tough is not cost-effective, because spending hundreds of billions of dollars caused only a drop of 10%-25% in crime during the 1990’s; “getting tough” is more a political statement appealing to racism/fear than an intelligent approach to our nation’s crime problem; after incarcerating these people, we release approximately 700,000 of them per year, creating many problems for the areas in which they are released and live; and several experts seem to agree that the nation’s wellbeing and the offender’s wellbeing are really 2 sides of the same coin, because dealing with the offender’s problems will reduce crimes related to those problems without costing hundreds of billions of dollars.

The anti-“get tough” approach seems more sensible in at least some respects. For example, the alcohol/substance abuse problem in the United States has a great impact on the Criminal Justice System: every day, the Criminal Justice System must deal with either alcohol/substance abuse charges or related problems such as thefts to obtain drug money, domestic abuse and probation violations by failed alcohol/drug tests. Through decades of dealing with the problems of alcohol/substance abuse and seeing that these problems are not being solved by simply throwing people in jail for selling or using, Criminal Justice experts are increasingly acting on the belief that the wellbeing of the community and the wellbeing of the offender go hand-in-hand. By bringing together experts from several fields, the System is focusing on breaking the cycle of alcohol/substance abuse by studying the science of addiction and setting up institutional ways of dealing with addiction. They believe that by reducing and eliminating addiction, we will reduce and eliminate the multiple crimes related to addiction. These experts suggest several steps to break the cycle of drug addiction in order to reduce and eliminate the problems related to addiction.

First, they want system-wide continuing education of all members of the Criminal Justice System about the science of addiction.

Secondly, they want all members to work together for a standard plan to decide: what roles each member should play in dealing with addiction; what information must be gathered to decide whether an offender is an addict; the earliest times to screen offenders; all the alternatives to incarceration that can be used, depending on an offender’s screening results.

Third, they want to establish across the System: alternative methods for dealing with addiction; screening/assessment to decide which people should be merely prosecuted and jailed and which people need alternatives.

Fourth, they want to enable all members of the System to use effective alternatives to incarceration.

Fifth, they want to enable all members of the System to supervise people using those alternatives.

At least some government experts prefer these measures because they significantly reduce drug/alcohol-related crime less expensively and more effectively than does “getting tough.”

Kathy Catanzarite

[Note from This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]