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What Can Courts and Prisons Do to Reduce Violent Crime? 

Courts and prisons can do precious little to reduce violent crime, although they can exacerbate it. How courts and prisons deal with violent crime is not unimportant, of course, but that is a product of the same social, economic, and political conditions that determine levels of crime and violence in a society. Countries in which courts are apolitical institutions that consistently impose punishments that are fair, proportionate, and humane tend to have relatively low levels of violence. Both legal cultures and social conditions associated with low rates of violence are products of historical and cultural forces that shape a country. Countries with strong human rights values, high levels of citizen trust in the state and one another, low levels of income inequality, and strong social welfare systems tend to have both low levels of violence and humane and principled legal cultures. The overwhelming implication is that serious efforts at violence prevention, though they should and will embody strenuous targeted efforts to reduce violence per se, must be equally or more focused on building the social and economic conditions that make violence and other predatory crime less common. As Scandinavian scholars and officials often say, the best crime policy is a good social policy.