Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system.
This topic has very deep historical and social roots. The ethics and strategies by which society punishes criminals and keeps order have been discussed since societies begun to fulfill these functions. The problem arises because the justice system is faced with the unenviable task of balancing the human desire for vengeance on the part of the victims and the societal desire to treat criminals fairly and re-integrate them into the social fabric after their debt to society has been paid. These goals are often at odds with one another and can only be reconciled with some effort. Today, we’re discussing some key controversies on this question via a review of relevant evidence and an explanation of core arguments. We’ll begin with the affirmative side, that rehabilitation of offenders should be the overriding imperative of the criminal justice system.
Rehabilitation activists take a view of crime informed by social justice advocates. They believe largely in nurture over nature in most cases; that is, the idea that criminals are often made by life experience and circumstances, not born. They focus on the social conditions that can cause an individual to turn toward criminal activity by constraining their choices. Poverty, for example, can marginalize individuals and leave them with no choice but to steal or starve. Racism can marginalize entire groups or communities, discriminating and stigmatizing them so that it can be difficult to find employment, making a life of crime or addiction more likely. A difficult or abusive home life can teach individuals, through no fault of their own, to resolve conflicts violently because they’ve never been exposed to the alternative.
Rehabilitation services in jails concentrate on discerning the social conditions that led a criminal to commit a violent act, repairing the damage that has been done (through drug rehabilitation, counseling, or other services), and putting inmates on a path toward productively engaging in society in the future (through job training programs or other bridge-to-employment options).
Advocates justify these “softer approaches using the following arguments:
1. Rehabilitation focus restores international credibility and moral authority.
In a relatively recent New York Times, law student Chip Corwin makes the argument that a retribution-focused justice system may damage America’s international standing. He explains,
Chip Corwin, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
I was taught in law school that prison sentences have two purposes: to ensure public safety and to punish the offender. For the past few decades, meeting those goals has meant long prison terms even for nonviolent offenders, leading to soaring incarceration rates. A few states are now realizing that they can cut prison sentences (and thus, costs) without sacrificing public safety. Reforms include expanding re-entry programs to curb recidivism and developing alternatives to incarceration. Although state budget crises spurred these changes, more than money is at stake. With continued reform, an American prison system that shocked Dickens in 1842 for its cruelty could finally begin to meet international standards, helping to restore America as a country of just authority and moral leadership. But first, we need to stop using punishment as a principal justification for lengthy prison terms and, instead, reserve prison for those who pose a grave risk to public safety. Punishment, where productive, could still be employed through sanctions and local supervision of graduated intensity. But instead of going to prison, low-risk offenders should stay in the community.
Corwin alludes to the idea that America often holds (and strongly desires to keep) an international position of authority on issues of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Allowing our prisons to become too punishment-focused erodes this perception internationally and damages our credibility as a global example of respect for liberty.
This global model is an important aspect of American influence and national identity. It’s difficult to pressure other nations to honors prisoners’ rights or other liberty-related causes if we set a poor example. This extends to other issues as well, as credibility on human rights is broad-based.
In debate, there’s always the potential for specific scenarios here if you desire, but just a general statement about U.S. rights credibility being critical to national identity or effective global pressure on these issues is a great place to start.
2. Retributive justice causes recidivism.
Recidivism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior; especially : relapse into criminal behavior.” Many rehabilitation advocates are concerned about recidivism as a result of an overly punitive system. Jonathan Aitken explains how retributive justice imposes structural constraints on inmates,
Jonathan Aitken, “Jonathan Aitken: The way we treat prisoners creates a conveyor belt of crime,” The Independent, March 23, 2009.
We have a system in which two thirds of prisoners are re-offending within two years. When you think that this is a prison system upon which we spend nearly £20bn a year, it's a very poor return. Because our system is based on punishment rather than rehabilitation, we are simply creating a permanent conveyor belt of crime and offending, which in turn leads to prison overcrowding. People released from prison end up back there because they are not helped to integrate back into society. The best way to do that is for them to get a job, but our current legislation only allows for criminal records to be expunged after at least 10 years. It makes it impossible for former prisoners to get jobs because if they are given an interview they are forced to admit that they have a criminal record. No one will then employ them, and they are dragged back into a life of crime. No one is suggesting that people who have committed sex offences or have committed serious or violent crimes such as murder or rape should not have to disclose their criminal past. But depending on things such as age and seriousness of offence, this rule could be relaxed. I think that in the case of a young prisoner who has committed a minor offence the time period for expunging a criminal record could be as little as two years. This would mean that they could make a fresh start when they have served their time and would be able to apply for jobs without having to mention the fact that they have a criminal record. It is a similar system to the Second Chance Act brought in in the United States last year under the sponsorship of Joe Biden. I see no reason why it can't work here.
Gerald Harris elaborates,
Gerald Harris, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
Unquestionably, the expansion of programs to better equip inmates to cope upon their return to society reduces the rate of recidivism and thus promotes public safety even as it reduces the financial burden of maintaining the prison system. That approach is now being emphasized by the current commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. It is equally important, as Mr. Corwin suggests, to use alternatives to incarceration. While postconviction punishment is an appropriate response to criminal misconduct, it should not take the form of long-term incarceration, which is often disproportionate to the crime and counterproductive to the rehabilitation of the offender. As a judge in Criminal Court, I found that psychiatric intervention, drug treatment and other behavior modification programs and use of mandated community service were often more effective in rehabilitating an offender while conferring a public benefit. Mr. Corwin does not mention the most serious, and least justified, form of punishment: the senseless deprivation of a convicted felon's civil rights. The impediment to pursuing certain licensed occupations, to gaining public housing and driving privileges, and to the exercise of fundamental rights, such as voting and jury service, relegates many former inmates to second-class citizenship and handicaps their ability to establish productive and lawful lives. The restoration of these rights, after an appropriate interval, would significantly improve the lives of former prisoners, make more fair the imposition of punitive sanctions and relieve, to some extent, the economic cost of the prison system.
If criminals are released with no prospect of finding the employment and thus no capacity to live a productive life outside of prison, it’s unlikely that they will have a legitimate alternative to more crime. If someone is employed and participating in society, criminal behavior constitutes a serious risk; others have nothing to lose by taking said risk.
Corwin highlights another issue:
Chip Corwin, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
But first, we need to stop using punishment as a principal justification for lengthy prison terms and, instead, reserve prison for those who pose a grave risk to public safety. Punishment, where productive, could still be employed through sanctions and local supervision of graduated intensity. But instead of going to prison, low-risk offenders should stay in the community. This emphasis on results over retribution would bring many benefits. Not only would it help redeem America's image abroad, but it would also help restore many communities that have come to regard prison as a rite of passage. Also, offenders not in prison are better able to pay restitution to victims. And, finally, reform could frustrate the private prison industry's unconscionable efforts to profit off mass incarceration.
Although there are several warrants here, the most interesting is perhaps Corwin’s argument about the inertia toward the current punitive system. High emphasis on imprisoning individuals for relatively minor crimes will generally focus on underserved communities with fewer resources to navigate the system (inability to afford expensive lawyers, post bail, etc). In these communities, many young adults will end up in prison and so the taboo against imprisonment and the cultural pressure to avoid crime are weakened. If young people grow up in a community where prison is a highly possible life outcome, their ability and motivation to avoid the system are compromised. Retributive justice contributes to this by focusing on punishment over circumstances – many of these individuals might be better served by remaining within their communities under the care of a rehabilitative program. These programs,by virtue of their existence as an alternative, can potentially combat the idea that prison is a necessary outcome and place the focus on eliminating the background conditions that drive young people to crime.
Kim Gilhuly explains the ways in which this cycle perpetuates itself generationally, underscoring the importance of change:
Kim Gilhuly, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
Perhaps the most harmful result of needlessly incarcerating low-risk, nonviolent offenders is what it does to families, especially children. More than one-third of children with a parent in prison drop out of school. Youth whose parents go to prison are seven times more likely to be convicted of a crime as adults. But data can't measure the pain of families torn apart by harsh sentences that are ineffective, unhealthy and unfair. As the now-grown daughter of a former prisoner said in a focus group on funding for prison alternatives in Wisconsin: ''When my mother was sentenced to prison, I was sentenced to be without my mother.'' Offenses linked to drug and alcohol abuse account for 80 percent of the growth in Wisconsin's prison population since 1996. Most of these people need treatment, not punishment. Prison doesn't treat their problems, doesn't make communities safer and rips apart innocent families whose wounds may not heal for generations.
Here’s more evidence from The Times:
The Times, “If rehabilitation is the goal…” September 19, 2006, Lexis.
However, rehabilitation isn't the only goal. Earlier this year John Reid, the Home Secretary, defined the core purpose of his department as "protecting the public". This fits with a wider political strategy of "rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority and victim", a move that has caused nervousness among many members of the judicial system and in third sector organisations that fear a further retreat from the rehabilitative agenda and a shift towards retribution. In July Reid announced the provision of 8,000 more prison places in England and Wales by 2012, but the latest projections show that the total number of places could still fall short of requirements. However, longer sentences and more prison places are unlikely to have a lasting positive effect on levels of crime, particularly if this leads to further overcrowding, strains on the probation service, and a reduction of the support available for tackling prisoners' problems such as illiteracy, addiction and poor mental health. Some members of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations view new prison places much as some environmentalists view roadbuilding: solving crime-related problems with prisons is like solving smoking-related problems with ashtrays. Long-term success requires tackling the problem further upstream. Government has rarely articulated with any strength the need for rehabilitation and support as an integral part of the crime-cutting agenda. An obvious case can - and should -be made that the majority of crime is committed by ex-offenders, and repeat patterns of offending can be broken only through interventions that address the issues driving offenders to crime. The challenge for third sector organisations lies in helping the Government to move positive interventions aimed at rehabilitation -such as Rathbone's "Prove It" campaign in Manchester - from the margins of correctional services into mainstream provision.
Thus, by foregoing a retributive philosophy for most and allowing those individuals to serve their sentences through mandated community service, counseling, and addiction programs, governments may free resources to invest in those who require more intensive confinement and more in-depth rehabilitative focus.
The trade-off between more retribution and rehabilitation programs is important to establish because the negative will make arguments about how these goals are not mutually exclusive (that retribution bolsters rehabilitation and vice versa). You need to be prepared to describe how the finitude of resources complicates an equitable balance of these services; that is, many rehabilitative services work best when they are well-funded and they cannot hope to be if prisons are too overcrowded as a result of retributive justice. Marc Mauer explains the relative benefits of spending money on rehabilitation programs instead:
For those who want to make an argument more tied to the practical concerns, many authors argue that retributive approaches are a comparatively bad investment. Marc Mauer explains:
Marc Mauer, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
Most of these people have been convicted of serious crimes, but excessively lengthy prison terms preclude the possibility of individual change. The 18-year-old who is the getaway driver for a friend's armed robbery of a drugstore will not necessarily be a threat to public safety 10 years later, yet will often be turned down by a parole board owing to the nature of the crime. Aside from arguments of justice and compassion, the implications of such sentences for public safety and fiscal policy are significant. There is little evidence that lengthy prison sentences have a substantial impact on crime, but they place enormous strains on federal and state budgets. With finite resources, we can either keep thousands of individuals in prison long after their prospects of recidivism decline or use those funds to address the needs of young people in disadvantaged communities who are at risk of becoming involved in crime. The wise choice should be obvious.
Finally, Nicholson and Anderson give a persuasive account of why retribution generally fails to deter crime and will often contribute to higher crime rates:
John Nicholson and Tim Anderson, “Beware the lynch mobs,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 1995.
THERE is good reason to believe the plans for harsher penalties will backfire, increasing some categories of violent crime. This would be consistent with the position in the US, where harsh laws co-exist with an extremely violent society and the world's biggest prison population. Is either Fahey or Carr prepared to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of their expensive "law and order" proposals? There are three powerful reasons why "talking tough" and increasing the use of prison will not lower crime rates. First, most crime is undetected, and much is unreported. Second, crime is mainly a youth phenomenon. Finally, prisons themselves add to some categories of violent crime. Most reported crime is property crime, the two most common offences being burglary and car theft. There is a fairly high reporting rate for these offences, due to high levels of insurance, yet there is only an 11 per cent conviction rate for the 300,000 burglaries and 130,000 car thefts a year across Australia. Within this small group of apprehended offenders, a jail sentence would not normally be imposed for those on their first offence. So, at most, one in 20 such offenders is apprehended, convicted and jailed. Both assault and sexual assault are not so much undetected as unreported. An Australian Bureau of Statistics victim survey suggests that sexual assault in Australia is reported 25 per cent of the time, but another survey has it as low as 6 per cent. If we accept the 25 per cent figure, NSW with about 2,500 reported sexual assaults a year must actually have 10,000 cases. Yet only about 150 sexual assault offenders are convicted in NSW each year. That is one conviction for every 75 sexual assaults and, again, not all convicted offenders would be jailed. My point is that for the most common offences against property and against the person, only a tiny portion of offenders is ultimately convicted, much less jailed. Locking up twice as many offenders, or the same group for twice as long, will not make much of a dent on the wider crime rate. The second reason why the prison rate is largely irrelevant to the crime rate reinforces the first. Looking at burglaries and car thefts some years ago, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that half of those convicted were under 18 years of age, and 80 per cent were under 21. Our most common crimes are committed by young people, some very young. Most go undetected, pass through a phase and go on to live normal lives. A few get put into institutions. The implication of youth crime on prison policy is this: no amount of jailing 17- and 18-year-olds will stop the 15- and 16-year-olds moving into their place. No amount of "tough" penalties for those unfortunate or silly enough to be caught will stem the flow of the mainly unemployed and uneducated youth who get involved in crime. This brings me to my third point. Many of those who are institutionalised at an early age graduate to a particularly high-risk and low-return form of crime, violent robbery. A very large proportion of violent robbery offenders have been in jail before, where macho jail culture teaches them that robbery is more prestigious than breaking into houses or pinching cars. An expanding maximum security prison population is likely to aggravate robbery levels and may also add to other violent crime. Look at the background of those in the most highly publicised violent crimes. A large number were brutalised in institutions in their adolescence. They emerged with no social skills, bitter and misogynist, and lashed out at those around them. Talking tough and increasing jail sentences will not reduce crime rates. The sense of relief at "one more off the streets" is a naive illusion. Increased use of prison will, however, aggravate some categories of violent crime, as well as increasing Aboriginal imprisonment and deaths in custody. It will also expand the population of uneducated, unemployed, illiterate and otherwise disadvantaged people that currently fill the NSW prison system.
In sum, first-time offenders that are actually caught (most are not, presenting another serious issue with the deterrence claim by the negative) are young and committing relatively minor crimes. Putting them in institutions with little rehabilitative support only ensures they emerge angry and accustomed primarily to the company of other criminals. These individuals maintain the same disadvantages that led them to a life of crime in the first place, compounded by anger at years of punishment. With limited options, they are likely to escalate their criminal activity in defiance.
3. Victim satisfaction is a poor metric for “justice.”
One of the criticisms of a rehabilitative approach is that it robs innocent victims of their opportunity to gain closure, knowing that those who wronged them have been brought to justice and made to suffer the consequences of what they’ve done. Most victims of crime are, understandably perhaps, upset at the idea that an individual, who, say, robbed them at gunpoint, will receive free addiction counseling and drug treatment for inflicting such a traumatic experience. Janine Natalya Clark explains that this is less relevant by virtue of its indeterminacy:
Clark, Janine Natalya. 2008. "The three Rs: retributive justice, restorative justice, and reconciliation." Contemporary Justice Review 11, no. 4: 331-350. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 5, 2012).
What is striking about these two statements is that both Del Ponte and Moghalu appear to treat justice as if it were an entirely straightforward and self-explanatory concept. In reality, however, justice is a contested concept; it has no uniform or universal meaning. As Gustafson (1998) underlines, ‘Different societies and their members have distinct notions of what is fair and right…. The meaning ascribed to justice varies widely because the concept is inextricably contextual’ (p. 66). For the sake of reconciliation, it is important that justice is seen to be done. In the words of Kent (1995 Para. 9), ‘If, somewhere along the way, the parties involved do not come to feel that legal justice has actually been done,.
Victim satisfaction is a very slippery metric by which to measure justice. While some victims may be satisfied by a life sentence, others may feel more gratified by a rehabilitative approach. Courts must dispense with the opinion of the victim in favor of a uniform approach. Hal Sperling explains,
Hal Sperling, “Retribution a failed strategy in cutting crime,” The Australian, June 4, 2010, Lexis.
That said, I believe people would prefer improving community safety to exacting retribution, particularly as retribution is much more expensive than more effective ways of dealing with crime. I am speaking of the ordinary run of crime, not the minority of really bad cases for which imprisonment for life, or for a very long time, is necessary to protect the community. Some people want heavier sentences. Victims and the families of victims are often vocal. No penalty would be sufficient to satisfy them. That is understandable, but what would policy based on that lead to? Then there are those who demand retribution. They also are vocal and tend to be noticed. Retribution runs deep in human nature but that does not mean it is a worthy sentiment. Pride and avarice run deep too. Two wrongs don't make a right. Imprison X for harming Y and what have you achieved if all you get out of it is retribution? The satisfaction of retributive sentiment, yes, but X, on the stats, will be apprehended for another jailable offence within two years or so of their release.
Sperling makes a persuasive move when he asks what a policy based on victim’s feelings would look like and perhaps rightly identifies that it would be sub-optimal. It is the case that justice is dictated by an impartial judge for this reason – the law is about ensuring public safety and the functioning of society, not victim satisfaction. It is the case that victims are considered in the judicial process, but it’s also the case that we don’t allow victims to punish offenders themselves for a reason. Namely, it would lead to a variety of inconsistent, disproportionate, and dangerous responses with questionable social benefit.
4. Retribution snowballs to make society more punitive and divided.
Another consideration, of course, is the societal cost of retribution. One of the goals of justice is to ensure that society is safe, functional, and productive. Jeffrey Renz explains how retributive justice may run counter to those goals:
Jeffrey Renz, “Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime,” The New York Times, December 2, 2012.
We are criminalizing more acts and omissions that we once disregarded or treated as a civil matter. Prosecutors' offices become collection agencies for bad debts. Jails become dumping grounds for spouses in domestic disputes. Prisons, not hospitals, house our mentally ill. Punishment inflation increases under the persistent threat of being labeled soft on crime. In the mid-1990s, Montana, for example, drank the ''truth in sentencing'' Kool-Aid and abolished time off for good behavior, doubling prison sentences overnight. Punishment inflation is fueled by deterrence theory. If 5 years in prison can deter crime, won't 10 years in prison deter more crime? We have a criminal justice system that is archaic, racist and focused on the ''others.'' The rest of us don't identify with and therefore do not change policies that affect the ''others.'' But as Attorney General (and later Supreme Court associate justice) Robert Jackson pointed out in 1940, the laws have become so complex that all of us have become lawbreakers, subject only to the discretion of the police and the prosecutor. We are the ''others.''
Renz argues that enticements to “get tough on crime” via retribution cause a slippery slope of criminalization by vindicating the impulse to exact vengeance. If this mentality is allowed to flourish, it will cause society to become more divided and less forgiving of those who step outside legal confines. Although there are many highly philosophical reasons why the expansion of the power to punish is dangerous (biopolitics authors, social control authors, etc.) in the most general sense it’s destructive because it vests society with the power to paint those who have broken a law as a kind of “outsider class.” The ostracized individuals suffer social stigma and the resulting divided society faces obstacles in coming together cooperatively to work toward shared goals, let alone treat one another ethically.
5. Overwhelming focus on retribution necessarily weights the criminal justice system too heavily against the accused.
Another consideration is the value of fairness. Yes, the criminal justice system exists for the protection of victims from harm, but it also exists to ensure that those who enter as offenders are treated ethically. Nicholson and Anderson explain:
John Nicholson and Tim Anderson, “Beware the lynch mobs,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 1995.
It is not without significance that the Premier announced his "Three strikes and you're in!" policy to a room full of victims. No-one knows how many potential offenders are already eligible. Police records in this State no doubt would indicate a number closer to 10,000 than the Attorney-General's estimate of 200. If interstate crimes of violence also count then the number may well be higher. The victim's cry for retribution and vengeance comes at a heavy cost, not only to the taxpayer, but to the criminal justice system itself. Labor's proposals to have mandatory life sentences for large-scale drug trafficking moves the sentencing discretion from the judiciary to a blindfolded jury - blindfolded because the jury cannot be told what sentence an offence carries, and the defence cannot address the jury on sentence. The criminal justice system of today is about more than vengeance. The lynch mobs of the wild west in the last century were all too often driven by the anger of victims. The sole focus of the criminal justice system cannot be the satisfaction of the victim's needs, no matter how horrendous the offence. To concede that victims have legitimate expectations of the criminal justice system should not mean denying that fairness to an accused person is also vital if there is to be integrity in our dealing with criminals. Criminal trials are not a conflict between victim and accused, but between accused and the Crown, that is, the State. Sentencing proceedings must seek to balance punishment and retribution inflicted upon the criminal, protection of society generally, deterrence of the offender and others tempted to offend, and rehabilitation of the prisoner. It is often overlooked, but since the accused is one of the parties to the proceedings, the orders that are made must be fair to him as well as to the State.
A retributive system often operates on the assumption that criminals, choosing to commit crimes, forfeit their status as deserving of ethical treatment. Rehabilitation advocates argue, however, that they are still human beings and that their punishment should still respect that fundamental truth. An overwhelming focus on retribution fundamentally erases this reality and writes off the accused to a life fundamentally defined as payback and by their crimes. Just as we have an obligation to keep victims safe and bring offenders to justice, we also have an obligation to offenders as human beings to ensure that they are not punished so harshly as to step beyond the function of public safety and into unproductive vengeance.
6. The negative’s deterrence arguments are incorrect.
Finally, the negative will argue that deterrence should be an overriding goal of the criminal justice system and that, if punishment for crime is not at least significantly unpleasant, offenders will have no incentive not to commit crimes. As the affirmative, you will need to answer this argument. You can certainly use the recidivism arguments above to start, but here’s more defense. Hal Sperling explains:
Hal Sperling, “Retribution a failed strategy in cutting crime,” June 4, 2010.
A moment's thought is sufficient to know that a heavier regime of sentencing makes no difference in deterring the prospective offender. What offender would know that the likely penalty for housebreaking or stealing a car would, in their case, be four years in jail rather than two years, particularly with 80 per cent of crime being alcohol- or drug-related? Judges sometimes say they are ``sending a message''. Politicians say that too when they increase penalties. Who do they think delivers the message? Would your typical offender read it in the newspapers or remember anything of it if they did? If they did hear this message, would it make any difference? Returning to X, the odds are that he has a fair number of the following features: younger than 30, poorly educated, functionally illiterate, unemployed, homeless, from a dysfunctional family, with dysfunctional current relationships, mentally ill or intellectually disabled, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, previously in prison, and with a history of criminal behaviour going back to childhood. There are statistics on this, but experience in the law, when one has seen enough offenders, bears it out. Is it not better to be thinking about how to turn X around or, better still, doing things to head off a life of crime before it starts?
Harkening back to the initial discussion, Sperling points out that the criminal demographic generally has one or more social disadvantages. He argues that these disadvantages (literacy challenges, poor impulse control owing to addiction or past trauma, etc.) may lead them to either a. never find out about the tougher sentences for the crimes they intend to commit or b. find out about them and lack the mental capacity (either education or, if drugs are involved, rational decision-making) to make an informed choice about their actions. Of course, some individuals fully understand the gravity of a crime and commit it anyway, but the numerous shades of grey where capacity is diminished in whole or on part by circumstances outside of an individuals’ full control also make deterrence a faulty proposition.
Sir Frederick Lawton underscores this point:
Sir Frederick Lawton, “Unlocking the door to prison reform,” The Times, August 27, 1991, Lexis.
The statutory purpose set out in the Prison Rules, first made under the Prsons Act 1898, is the rehabilitation of offenders. For years it has been accepted by those working in the prison service that this is an unattainable objective. But if rehabilitation is impractical, what should be the object, or objects, of a prison sentence? So far there has been no answer. Is the purpose deterrence? Those with experience of the courts know that offenders with previous convictions are likely to reappear in the courts, whereas, for about 80 per cent of first offenders, appearing in court and being convicted not the sentence imposed is what deters. No one knows whether prison sentences stop others from committing crime. Perhaps they do, but probably not among that section of society which seems to produce so many of the criminals. By the Prisons Act 1865, Parliament approved a rigorous prison regime. Courts were empowered to impose sentences of imprisonment with hard labour. Some were put to work breaking stones in quarries, others excavating sites for new docks. The object was to make prisons terrifying places, but they did not stop recidivists.
A few points:
1. No matter how terrifying prisons are, people have historically committed crimes, even repeat crimes.
2. Simply being convicted of a crime is often enough to deter someone from committing another. What comes next, if it’s just more punishment with no rehabilitation focus, often results in diminishing returns. 10 years in jail versus 20 years really only matters if something happens within the 10 year difference that productively engages a convict.
That’s all for today! In the next few days, we’ll publish our negative-side analysis of the topic as well. As always, feel free to send your cases for a free critique to lauren (dot) sabino (at) ncpa (dot) org. Good luck this season!