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In deterring crime, does more jail time really work?

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A deputy with the L.A. Sheriff's Department checks the handcuffs of prisoners.
A deputy with the LA Sheriff's Department checks the handcuffs of prisoners

Why the idea became the central argument for mass incarceration, but research shows it may have a limited effect in actually preventing crime.

There are a number of reasons why we put convicted criminals behind bars. This could include punishment for misdeeds or a sense of justice to their victims.

But another hotly-debated topic is the issue of deterrence — does it prevent crime at all?  It's a question New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon tackles in her piece, "The Soft Evidence Behind the Hard Rhetoric of ‘Deterrence’."

She says the introduction of deterrence in the '70s showed "the difference between zero prison and a little bit of prison is pretty significant in terms of deterring people away from crime."

Speaking with Take Two's Alex Cohen, Bazelon says the idea became the central argument for mass incarceration in the '80s and '90s.

But it may have a limited effect in preventing crime.

Bazelon says various reasons including research that most career criminals in prison tend to age out of committing crime.

"We're spending a lot of money people who are graying and getting old, sick and even dying," she says. "But they're not really going to be committing crimes on the outside."

Bazelon cites a 1986 trial in Rome, Georgia which questions the role of deterrence in our criminal justice system today. The case involved Timothy Foster, a black man tried in front of an all-white jury. Bazelon says the lead prosecutor made an argument that can be viewed as racially loaded.

"He talked about giving the death sentence to Timothy Foster in order to deter other people out there in the projects," she says. "And he was talking about housing projects that were about 90 percent black."

The case will be re-evaluated by the Supreme Court this November.

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