Policy and practice in criminal justice are influenced by many kinds of factors. They include the law itself, and the framework it sets for sentencing; the prevailing ethos in society regarding how crime is perceived, usually reflected in dominant media narratives; and the availability of empirical evidence on what effects might be obtained by pursuing different courses of action. There is a view, perhaps fairly cynical, that the last of these is least likely to play a meaningful part. The course of criminal justice and of social attitudes to punishment over time is sometimes likened to a pendulum, swinging between what are thought to be more punitive policies on the one hand, and more liberal ones on the other. This chapter reviews the evidence that is available on how to reduce the likelihood of reoffending amongst those who have been convicted of offences and sentenced by the courts. That evidence poses a major challenge for the view that the best way to reduce the behaviour of ‘known criminals’ is by punishing them more severely, whether by means of longer sentences, more physically demanding prison regimes, or more austere institutional environments.
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