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Do Harsher Sentences Really Reduce Crime?

Apr 27, 2020 | Alcohol, Crime Statistics, Mental Health

In a recent interview, Arizona State Representative John Allen (R-Scottsdale) made a statement that we’ve heard from many conservative lawmakers over the years. The statement – that harsher sentencing reduces crime – is apparently based on the fact that crime in Arizona has decreased since the 1990’s, while mandatory sentencing minimum has become part of the criminal law landscape.

Allen’s statement was reportedly made on January 22 at a House Judiciary meeting, the agenda for which included a bill dealing with mandatory sentencing for certain drug offenses. The statement was backed up, as far as we can tell, with only the observation that harsh sentencing is up, and crime is down.

The logic of the statement is that when potential criminals realize that sentences will be harsher and more definite for particular crimes, they will weigh that fact, and many will make a reasoned decision not to commit an offense.

Issues Affecting the Crime Rate

The first problem we see with the statement by Rep. Allen (and others) is that it presumes the potential offender will weigh the options before deciding, let’s say, to punch someone in the nose, rob a convenience store or injure or kill someone while driving under the influence, later being charged with DUI and vehicular assault or vehicular manslaughter. We just don’t see that kind of thought process in effect in many situations involving criminal behavior. Beyond that, the argument ignores many factors that affect criminal behavior, including, among others:

  • Alcohol and Drugs. One study reveals that in the U.S., around half of all state prisoners are under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they commit their first offense.
  • Mental Health Disorders. A significant proportion of those who are in prison have mental health and/or personality disorders which affect their ability to make rational decisions.
  • Perception of the Risk of Arrest. According to one study, over 75% of offenders don’t even think about getting caught or believe the chances of being caught are minimal.
  • Cause and Effect. The mere fact that the crime rate declined while mandatory minimums increased proves, in and of itself, nothing. It ignores factors widely accepted as affecting crime rates, including poverty levels, job availability, police policies (“visible policing,” for example), and population age, among others.


We haven’t conducted studies on the issue of mandatory minimums and the crime rate. But we can tell you that the blanket statement made by the Representative fails to consider a host of factors that affect crime in the United States in general, and in Arizona, in particular.

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