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Does punishment work?
New research into British twins suggests that contact with the justice systems is more likely to promote future offending.

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New research by Ryan Motz and colleagues seeks to settle the dispute between those who argue that we should divert young people from the criminal justice system and those proposing that swift sanctions and a deterrent approach are more effective.

The purpose of the study: Does contact with the justice system deter or promote future delinquency? Results from a longitudinal study of British adolescent twins is neatly summarised in the abstract, reproduced below:

What impact does formal punishment have on antisocial conduct—does it deter or promote it? The findings from a long line of research on the labeling tradition indicate formal punishments have the opposite-of-intended consequence of promoting future misbehavior. In another body of work, the results show support for deterrence-based hypotheses that punishment deters future misbehavior. So, which is it? 

The study draws on a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 British adolescent twins from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study to perform a robust test of the deterrence versus labeling question. The brilliance of this powerful research design is that twins can serve as the counterfactual for their co-twin, thereby ruling out many sources of confounding that have likely impacted prior studies. 


The study sought to answer three key questions:

  1. Does spending a night in jail or prison increase or decrease delinquency?
  2. Does being issued an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) increase or decrease delinquency?
  3. Does having an official crime record increase or decrease delinquency?

The research found that:

  • Spending a night in jail or prison is associated with a 2.396 point increase, on average, in delinquency from age 12 to age 18.
  • On average, individuals who had been issued an ASBO showed a 2.751 point increase in delinquency from age 12 to age 18 than did those who had not been issued an ASBO.
  • Finally, individuals who had a criminal record showed a 1.065 point increase in delinquency from age 12 to age 18 than did those who did not have a record.


The authors conclude:

The pattern of findings provides support for labeling theory, showing that contact with the justice system—through spending a night in jail/prison, being issued an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO), or having an official record—promotes delinquency.

This is a particularly important conclusion at a time when justice systems on both sides of the Atlantic are threatening to crack down on crime and criminals.

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