Prison Begets Prison… and the point is?


Those of us who work in the criminal justice system — whether lawyers, judges, social workers or whatever — are fairly cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of people who get arrested aren’t really a problem for society.  Depending on the stats you’re looking at, for something like 83% of the people who get arrested, that first contact with the criminal justice system is their last.  They don’t re-offend, period.  Maybe they’re good folks who just made a mistake.  Maybe they got scared straight.  Maybe their crime was the result of a circumstance that will never occur again.  Whatever the reason, we never see them again.

As we all pretty much recognize this, we tend to give first-timers (well, not murderers, obviously) some benefit of the doubt.  We give the first-arrest guy a chance to prove that, though he may have committed this crime, he’s not really a criminal.  Maybe he gets a consent decree/adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.  Or a conditional discharge, or some period of probation.  Community service.  Something, anything, other than jail.  Some kind of penance, whereupon we can confidently give our blessing and say “go forth and sin no more.”

But what about those who come back?  What about that 17% who re-offend?

They keep coming back, that’s what.  They may have gotten probation last time, but they’re soon going to find themselves in prison.  And once they get out, they tend to re-offend and get sent right back.  Usually within three years, but often within a single year.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation just released a thorough statistical analysis of these re-offenders.  You can check it out here.  It doesn’t really have much to say about why people re-offend, but it has some useful data on who re-offends.  Good breakdowns by various demographic categories such as age, race, sex, nature of offense, and mental illness.  Also some eye-opening stats on how soon they re-offend, how often, and how long they stay in prison.

A lot of conclusions can be drawn from these stats.  The wrong conclusions can be the most tempting — to increase some first-timer’s sentence because he might share some characteristics with recidivists, predicting future crimes that have never happened and probably never will happen.  That way lies great injustice.

The right conclusions, however, are still not particularly rosy.  Despite the fact that we give our prison systems such names as “Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” prison rarely if ever results in correction or rehabilitation.  Three out of every four people who come out of prison are back behind bars pretty soon.

There are other purposes of punishment, of course.  We punish out of retaliation, hitting you back because you hit us first.  We punish for retribution, some kind of proportional eye-for-an-eye balancing of harm.  We punish to simply remove threats from walking among us.  And we punish to deter the offender and others from doing it in the future.

We do punish to correct behavior, as when we put a child in time-out.  And we do punish to rehabilitate, as when we put someone in an intense in-patient drug-treatment program.  But nobody with any experience of the system has any realistic expectation that prison corrects or rehabilitates.  It was a nice pipe dream of the reformers and idealists of the Victorian and Rooseveltian ages, but reality just hasn’t cooperated.

We like to think that we’re too civilized to imprison out of mindless retaliation or primitive retribution.  And we recognize that correction and rehabilitation aren’t likely.  So all that’s left are removal and deterrence.

Deterrence of others is iffy.  Nobody is deterred from committing crime X because Joe Schmoe just got three years for it in county court.  Because nobody apart from Joe Schmoe and the lawyers has any idea that this just happened, nor will they ever know that it happened.  People are only deterred by the idea of punishment.  All that is required for this is a general perception that offenders are more likely than not to get caught, and that those who get caught are more likely than not to get punished.  That vague promise of punishment is what deters those who stop to think before committing some act or other.  We don’t actually have to send this guy to jail, to deter those who might be deterred.

Deterrence of the individual, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be happening.  Again, three out of every four people who walk out of prison will walk back in again within three years.  Nobody knows better than them what will happen to them — in every detail — if they do it again, and yet they do it again.  It’s hard to claim that individual deterrence is happening.

So all that’s left, really, is removal.  Keep the offender off our streets.  For the safety and well-being of the rest of us.  Especially if they’re incorrigible, and are just going to re-offend if you let them walk among us.

But that’s only valid if people are being punished for crimes that actually threaten the safety or well-being of others.  As we pointed out last week, far too many people are going to prison for acts that have no victims, were not committed with any culpable mens rea, and pose no threat to anyone.  Removal is uncalled-for, and unjust.

So… um…

…Why are we putting so many people in prison again?  I forget.

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3 Responses

  1. Justin S says:

    Great post. It is so easy to lose sight of the purpose underneath all the process and you have reminded me of that. Alas, I don’t see any Corrections Corporation of America national convention speaking engagements in your future.

  2. NickS says:

    I realize this post is a month old, but I just wanted to point out that the majority of those reoffenders are sent back for parole violations, not new crimes. If you held the general public up to the demanding standards of the average parolee, I’d wager the majority of the population would be in prison. Prisons may be broken, but the parole/probation system is just as bad.

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