A question that all criminal justice professionals ask themselves is whether or not our justice system is up to the challenge of doing what it originally set out to do: “protect society from criminals, to punish those who commit crimes, and to make criminals better able to return to society once they have finished their sentences” (Topsfield Foundation, 1996). Although the American system of justice has made great advancements in meeting these goals, one fact that exists is that placing criminals in prison does not benefit everyone.
There are five goals of contemporary sentencing, and before we can discuss the ways in which placing criminals in prisons are not beneficial, we must understand these goals. Retribution is the sentencing goal that seeks revenge on a criminal. It corresponds to the “just deserts” model of sentencing due to the fact that it deems offenders responsible for their crimes. When an offender is punished under this model, they are said to have received their “just deserts” (Schmalleger, 2005). Imprisonment is the primary sentencing goal of this model.
Yet, capital punishment has resulted in the ultimate retribution in more serious cases. Incapacitation seeks to protect society from dangerous criminals. Incapacitation differs from retribution in the sense that it only requires restraint and not punishment. Deterrence, also involves specific deterrence and general deterrence, and uses the “threat of punishment” to “inhibit criminal behavior” (Schmalleger, 2005). This goal goes hand in hand with incapacitation due to the fact that “specific deterrence can be achieved through incapacitating offenders” (Schmalleger, 2005).
Rehabilitation, like deterrence, tries to decrease the number of criminal offenses. However, while deterrence builds on fear, rehabilitation works by educating criminals and promoting change within them. Lastly, restoration deals with restorative justice and the “healing” of all people involved in a particular case. Under this goal, the primary aim is to reconcile and repair the relationship of the victim and the offender with society (Schmalleger, 2005).
Today’s prisons are not so much geared towards rehabilitation as they are towards retribution and deterrence. Today, this model is known as the “modified just deserts” philosophy, and “appears to be emerging as the dominant philosophy of sentencing in America today” (Allenbaugh and Hofer, 2003). The sentences handed down to criminals are said to go hand in hand with the crime committed. However, what many people fail to realize is that by placing criminals in prison, without offering rehabilitative programs, we breed meaner, more hardened criminals.
In fact, statistical studies have shown that “as many as 90% of former convicted offenders [return] to lives of crime following release from prison-based treatment programs” (Schmalleger, 2005). This alone is evidence enough to prove that prison is a school of crime. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees criminals the right against “cruel and unusual punishment. ” Thus, sentences handed down to criminals must be fair. For example, “children are punished less severely than adults, which limits the power of the law to deter juvenile crime” (Senna, Siegal, & Welsh, 2003).
Therefore, if youths feel that the benefits of their crime, such as economic gain, materialism, and popularity, outweigh the pain of punishment then they will continue to lead a life of crime. Studies have not only proved that incarceration leads chronic juvenile offenders to continue a life of crime into adulthood, but it “increase[s] the likelihood that inexperienced or first-time offenders will commit new crimes” (Senna et al. , 2003). Because incarceration reduces future social and economic opportunities, engaging in risky, criminal behavior seems more feasible.
Now that we are aware that the threat of incarceration or incarceration itself does nothing to deter criminal behavior, we must find another way to fight this epidemic. If these convicted criminals are getting out of prison and engaging in more serious criminal offenses, then how is this beneficial to society or the criminal? The fact of the matter is that it’s not. However, I do believe that placing criminals in prison can prove to be more beneficial if some programs that promote healthy lifestyles are implemented in all prisons.
One problem that leads to criminal behavior is substance abuse. If we can cut back on the amount of teens using drugs and alcohol, then we will greatly impact juvenile delinquency rates, which would in turn impact the number of delinquents who go on to lead lives of crime in adulthood. We must push towards the establishment of drug treatment programs and community based educational programs instead of financing the construction of more jails and prisons. In fact, research in a number of disciplines demonstrates that social investments can produce more significant reduction in crime than expanded prison construction” and “that spending on drug treatment would reduce serious crimes fifteen times more effectively than incapacitating offenders through mandatory prison terms” (Mauer, 2002). Another scholar states that “since the 1970s, the number of prisons and incarcerated human beings [has] doubled while social services, jobs, and housing disappear.
The government’s response to problems is to lock people away while eliminating the means for any kind of education, health care, employment, or self determination” (Merriman, 1998). How can you see this as beneficial? Rehabilitation, like deterrence, aims to reduce recidivism rates. However, one difference between the two relies on the fact that deterrence builds on fear to accomplish this goal and rehabilitation tries to reduce recidivism rates by educating criminals and promoting positive change within them.
While “the ultimate goal of corrections under any theory is to make the community safer by reducing the incidence of crime, rehabilitation of offenders to prevent their return to crime, is in general the most promising way to achieve this end” (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000, p. 118). If we look at the empirical evidence we can conclude that rehabilitation does have a positive effect on recidivism. Meta analysis shows that rehabilitation has the ability to reduce crime by ten percentage points.
Though only a small percentage, the fact of the matter is that it does what it sets out to do. Meta-analysis provides us with empirical evidence that offenders can be rehabilitated because meta-analysis of offender treatment” between the years of 1985 and 1995 have since been replicated and confirms that rehabilitative programs do aid in the reduction of recidivism rates (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000, p. 137). Chronic offenders are those adolescents that have been arrested five or more times for engaging in violent criminal activity such as rape, robbery, murder, etc.
They are known as the “chronic 6 percent” because unlike other juvenile offenders they do not age-out of crime but continue this lifestyle into their adult years (Cullen, 2009, p. 11). Chronic offenders are viewed as a serious social problem because they greatly influence the nation’s overall crime statistics. Despite repeated incarceration they continue to lead a lifestyle of crime. Thus, if incarceration never works for chronic offenders, then why do we continue to jail them? I believe that a different route should be taken when it comes to chronic offenders.
I am not saying that their bad deeds should go unpunished, but maybe we should try to rehabilitate rather than seek revenge on them. Empirical evidence shows that rehabilitative programs that revolve around principles of effective intervention are more likely to reduce recidivism than those that do not. These principles include, but are not limited to:
1. Interventions should target the known predictors for crime and recidivism for change.
2. Treatment services should be behavioral in nature.
3. Treatment interventions should be used primarily with higher risk offenders, targeting their criminogenic needs (dynamic risk factors) for change.
A range of other considerations, if addressed, will increase treatment effectiveness (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000, p. 145,147) Programs that strengthen positive behavior in offenders and their families and promote education tend to have the greatest effect on recidivism rates. It is a fact that the family serves as a social institution and has the greatest effect on the behavior of a child. Thus, it is only right that we treat the entire family as a unit in order to solve or get to the root of serious behavior disorders in our youth (Henggeler, 1997, p. 2). We must push towards the establishment of drug treatment programs and community based ducational programs instead of financing the construction of more jails and prisons.
“In fact, research in a number of disciplines demonstrates that social investments can produce more significant reduction in crime than expanded prison construction” and “that spending on drug treatment would reduce serious crimes fifteen times more effectively than incapacitating offenders through mandatory prison terms” (Mauer, 2002, p. 28). Consequently, it is evident that placing criminals in prisons does not benefit everyone. In this day and age, we have more prisons than we have schools.
The race to build more prisons shows that we have lost all hope in our new generation. Because prison introduces criminals to newer more vicious crimes, it is my belief that rehabilitative alternatives are best fit for non-violent offenders instead of locking them up and throwing away the keys. Each and every time we are successful in rehabilitating a criminal, it not only benefits them, but the community in which they will return to live, as well as their family. Thus, it is my stance that placing criminals in prison does not benefit everyone. However, the rehabilitation of offenders does.