Do harsh punishments deter crime? Research sheds light on the question

What impacts have criminal policy choices had in the past and what can we learn from them today? Miikka Vuorela, doctoral student of historical criminology, examines the history of crime and punishment in Finland.

In the 1900s, Finland pursued a harsh criminal policy. Prison sentences were handed out on lighter grounds than in the neighbouring countries in the west.

“Finland had a significantly larger prison population than the other Nordic countries,” says Miikka Vuorela, doctoral student of historical criminology at the University of Helsinki.

This had its origins in social unrest and the efforts to curb it. The 1905 uprising and general strike marked the beginning of a period of political, social and economic crises in Finland, which extended past the Second World War.

“Finland struggled with crises for 40 years. They took their toll on society, and crime increased. The Finnish solution was to adopt harsher punishments,” Vuorela explains.

It wasn't until 1990 that Finland’s number of prisoners fell to the same level as that of other Nordic countries.

“People still commit offences for largely the same reasons as they did in the 19th century”

What types of crime were committed, what were the punishments for them and how did society view punishment?

Historical criminology examines the history of crime and punishment. Research topics can range from Mesopotamian punishment practices to the impacts of the amendments to Finnish alcohol policy two years ago – or to illicit intercourse, meaning sexual relations between unmarried people, which was a crime in 19th century Finland but no longer exists in the criminal code.

“In the 1840s, illicit intercourse was the third most commonly sentenced crime in Finland,” says Vuorela.

Vuorela’s own research focuses on the criminal policy pursued in Finland and the other Nordic countries in the past two hundred years. He has compiled and analysed statistics dating back to the period of autonomy 1809–1917 and stretching all the way to 2017.

The material for his nearly completed doctoral dissertation has shown Vuorela that the problems underlying crime and punishment have not changed much throughout history.

“The reasons for crime change very slowly. People still commit offences for largely the same reasons as they did in the 19th century.”

Vuorela believes that this is due to, for example, financial issues and a childhood environment that makes a person more prone to delinquency.

“For example, our attitude to the financially disadvantaged affects the number of crimes committed.”

To give an example, although the underlying causes of crime have not changed, the means to deter crime have evolved.

“In 19th century Finland, the unemployed and landless were sentenced to prison or transported to Siberia to prevent them from turning to crime,” says Vuorela.

“Socio-economic disadvantage continues to predispose people to criminal behaviour, but our solution now is to strive to prevent crime by ensuring a more equitable distribution of income and wellbeing.”

In the light of history, harsh sentences do not deter crime

Studies of the history of crime and punishment offer us information about the impacts of various criminal policy measures. This gives us insight into the factors that increase and reduce crime.

Vuorela’s material indicates an increase in crime during crises. This is what happened in Finland, for example, during the Civil War and the Second World War. The increase in crime was caused by financial distress, uncertainty about the future and an attitude to violence changed by the wars.

“The typical Finnish reaction to social crises and ensuing crime waves has been to adopt harsher punishments. In light of research, this approach has not led to the desired result of decreasing crime.

The number of prisoners in Finland remained higher than that of Sweden throughout most of the 20th century, even though crime rates followed the same path in both countries. According to statistics, both Finland and Sweden experienced a notable increase in crime from the 1950s to the early 1990s.

“The severity of criminal policy and the number of offences do not correlate.

Crime engendered by a period of crisis begins to decline when the crisis no longer affects people’s lives,” says Vuorela. Criminal policy cannot influence this.

“Consider, for example, a famine or pandemic: you cannot eliminate their impacts by introducing more severe punishments. In this respect, harsher sentences have been of no use.”

Historical research can help us improve criminal policy

The results of historical criminology research are used, for example, in various expert consultations. The role of researchers is to both collect and analyse material. Historical statistics as such do not lend themselves to making direct conclusions.

“You need an expert interpreter to communicate the key research observations and the conclusions that can be drawn from them.”

Research is often the reason for there being statistics in the first place. Vuorela chose 1809 as the starting point for his own research because there are no legal statistics available before that year. He has compiled the statistics for his work from various archives and official sources as well as from, for example, prisoner lists stored at the National Archives of Finland.

“There’s no such information at Statistics Finland,” says Vuorela.

“The compilation of national statistics did not begin until the early 1800s. There are individual researchers who through their own efforts have compiled earlier statistics dating back to the mid-1700s. For example, it is thanks to research that we have statistics on Finnish homicides going back to 1754.”

The benefit from historical criminology is not limited to history books, but also provides a foundation for the planning of future criminal policy.

“We can make modern criminal policy better thanks to lessons learned from history,” says Vuorela.

“Criminal policy always aims to find a balance between prevention, situational deterrence and punishment. It is necessary to understand historical development so that we can make new decisions and assess their impact.”

Why do we need science?

Science makes Finland stronger in crises. It enables us to find solutions for tackling the coronavirus and helps us educate world-class professionals. None of us can predict what kind of information we will need in 2050. What we do know is that we will need science.

Learn more about research that is changing the world and have a look at the University of Helsinki’s messages to policymakers.