Criminologists have been wondering about the effects of making sentencing policies stricter or more lenient, and of using custodial punishments in general, for decades. The ever-broadening use of imprisonment in the United States, at a time of decreasing crime victimization, brings the issue to the forefront again. Of course, the correlation between increasing imprisonment and decreasing crime rate in the U.S.A. has been used to advance the idea that increasing the severity of custodial punishment can be an effective crime prevention measure.
To be sure, a decrease in the crime rate is not as rare a phenomenon as could be expected from the daily news, which is more and more often full of reports about crime. However, crime victimization surveys have revealed that at the end of the 1990s decreasing crime rates were characteristic not only in the U.S.A. but for many other countries as well, among them Australia, Canada, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Crucially, the list of countries includes several countries with a prison population that is neither increasing nor decreasing.
In spite of the fact that there have been several arguments put forth to demonstrate that the concurrence of the trends in the U.S.A. does not prove any causal relation between them, the idea that increasing the severity of prison sentences can be an effective means of crime prevention has found new adherents in many countries, including Estonia.
Getting tougher on criminals is currently part of Estonia's government policy; the coalition agreement between the parties who support the incumbent government has a separate chapter on "efficient penal policy corresponding to the public perception of justice," where the main ideas are:
stricter punishments for drug-related crimes (selling), up to life imprisonment;
stricter punishments for organized crime;
inclusion of an attack against people performing legal protection duties (policemen, investigators, judges and prosecutors) among aggravated forms of crime;
stricter punishments for offences that substantially disturb the public;
stricter penal policy that corresponds to public expectations in respect to drug dealing, crimes against people and recurring grave offences;
an introduction of a penal practice according to which a short but effective punishment - i.e., short-term imprisonment, detention or community service - is imposed on first-time offenders.
Now let us take a look at the sentencing policy in Estonia to find out whether we can find peculiarities that could suggest that increasing the severity of custodial punishment in Estonia could be more effective in crime prevention than the experience of other countries has been suggesting. As of the end of 2003, there were 4,352 people in custody in Estonia. That is 340 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants 's a figure six times higher than the corresponding one for the Nordic countries.
The high attractiveness of stricter punishments could be understandable in the 1990s since the crime rate had increased sharply during that decade. However, since 2000, the rate has been stable and even decreased. If we look at the number of people in custody we can see that the changes have been insignificant, and no clear trend has emerged. Supporters of the idea that sentences have become too lenient stress that the proportion of people sentenced to unconditional imprisonment among all convicted persons has been on the decrease.
But if one also includes detention (short-term custodial sentence), it becomes clear that the changes in the ratio of custodial sentences to all sentences are statistically insignificant 's by 2001 it had become over 30 percent again. But a very different impression can be gained if we measure severity in terms of the total number of persons sentenced to unconditional imprisonment. This figure has increased nearly threefold; if one takes into account detention as well, the increase is even more than that.
In conclusion, it can be asserted that the attempts to change Estonia's sentencing policy in favor of harsher sentences may have some cause where certain crimes are concerned, but research has not revealed substantiated grounds for a general increase in the severity of sentencing policy.
Jaan Ginter is assistant professor
of criminology and assistant dean of the
faculty of law at the University of Tartu