Saturday, 5 January 2019

Don't lock 'em up - prison doesn't work

It is an understandable response to crime - lock 'em up, throw away the key. The problem is that this visceral desire to punish doesn't do much to deter and, so it seem, fails in its most obvious objective, reducing crime:
Current policy debates suggest that state prosecutors may have been a key force behind the historic rise in US incarceration. This paper investigates how state prosecutors of differing political affiliations influence county-level incarceration. Exploiting quasi-experimental variation generated by close elections, I find that Republican prosecutorial offices sentence defendants to longer incarceration spells as compared to their Democratic and Independent counterparts. This increase in incarceration length is driven by longer sentences for both violent and property offenses, and translates into a persistent increase in incarceration. These sentencing and incarceration enhancements do not lower crime at the county level, indicating that, in terms of public safety, the marginal return to the tough-on-crime stance may be close to zero.
OK, it's just one study (and one that's a little too politically-loaded for my taste) but it concurs with findings from less partisan studies that consistently show incarceration, "tough" sentence and rigorous sanctions regimes have negative effects on recidivism. Here's the UK government's findings:
Short-term custody (less than 12 months in prison, without supervision on release) was consistently associated with higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders and suspended sentence orders (‘court orders’)
For this group of criminals, prison just doesn't work. Indeed it doesn't just not reduce crime, it increases the chance that one-time criminals become career criminals. Norway has pretty much the world's lowest rate of recidivism (less than 20% compared to the UK's 70%). The Norwegian approach to imprisonment is part of the reason:
The thinking is that justice for society is best served by releasing prisoners who are less likely to reoffend. The Norwegian penal philosophy is that traditional, repressive prisons do not work, and that treating prisoners humanely improves their chances of reintegrating in society.7 This is achieved by a “guiding principle of normality,” meaning that with the exception of freedom of movement, prisoners retain all other rights and life in the prison should resemble life on the outside to the greatest extent possible.8 Within the walls of Halden, one of the newest maximum-security prisons in Norway, are cells with flat-screen televisions and mini-fridges, long windows to let in more sunlight, and shared living rooms and kitchens “to create a sense of family,” according to Hans Henrik Hoilund, one of the prison’s architects. Prisoners are not left to their own devices upon release, either. There is a safety net. The government guarantees it will do everything possible to ensure that released prisoners have housing, employment, education, as well as health care and addiction treatment, if needed.
I know you're all horrified but shouldn't we look to what seems to work rather than lock more and more young men up in overcrowded, ill-managed, drug-riddled prisons? If community sentences work (i.e. mean less recidivism, less crime and safer communities) we should use them more and, if short prison sentences don't work, we should use them less. We also need to create the space and time to straighten out those who we do lock up and if this means prisons being a more pleasant environment then that's what we should do.



Barman said...

I've always thought that it was pointless letting somebody out of prison that was pretty much guaranteed to continue on their previous path of crime due to lack of prospects.

The whole system seems to be a mess in the UK. Criminals are given laughably lenient sentences such as community orders and suspended sentences (which are rarely implemented when they re-offend) and so by the time they are finally sent to prison they are already used to a life of criminality with little consequences.

I think criminals should be deprived of their liberty once caught but when there offered training and support to ensure they can lead a crime free life when they are released. This would be backed with the threat of a significantly longer sentence should they re-offend.

Anonymous said...

One key benefit of prison is that, whilst incarcerated, that individual self-evidently cannot commit more crime on the public.

The issue of recidivism should be addressed by increasingly long sentences for repeat offenders, rather than a standard tariff - if someone had burgled before and got 12 months, a second offence would get 24 months, a third offence would get 48 months and so on, ad infinitum. If so, they're slow learners.

If you accept that most crime is committed by a small number of criminals (which it is), then locking away those repeat offenders for increasingly long periods keeps the streets safer for longer (see paragraph 1).

If they eventually get the message and stop doing crime, that's a bonus but, without adequate 'pain' each time, they never will.

Etu said...

If the world of work in the UK were not so generally grindingly humiliating, then maybe many self-imagined alpha males would be content to be a worker within the law, rather than try to be a boss outside it? Why must managements here try to re-create feudalism in the workplace? Germany and Scandinavia don't, and they have much lower crime rates.

But yes, in the US, they have the death penalty. And they also have about five times the pro-rata homicide rate of the UK.

That warrants careful reflection.

Dan said...

You want, I think, a multi-level system combining every other country's methods which are seen to work. So, use the Singapore/Arabic system of corporal punishment for very low-end crimes. Low-end offenders simply get caned, which actually deters a lot of the "just starting out" petty criminals.

For slightly more serious crimes, residential therapy. Not a prison, but a serious attempt to rectify whatever is wrong in their lives and get them to behave normally.

Only for the serious crimes or the serious career criminals is a long prison sentence only necessary, and then only for what might be termed warehousing morons. Even then, the last part of their sentence (and quite a lot of the middle) has to be aimed at preventing re-offence.

A final facet here is to legalise most drugs, on the grounds that drug prohibition does not, and has never worked in preventing drug use.

Sobers said...

"Shouldn't we look to what seems to work rather than lock more and more young men up in overcrowded, ill-managed, drug-riddled prisons? If community sentences work (i.e. mean less recidivism, less crime and safer communities) we should use them more and, if short prison sentences don't work, we should use them less."

You're forgetting second order effects. Yes there are undoubtedly ways we could treat criminals that would reduce their re-offending rate from what it is under the current system. The question then becomes - what effect would those policies have on the rate at which people became criminals in the first place?

For example I expect that giving every convicted criminal a free house and £1m in cash would reduce their re-offending rate quite considerably. However it might prove to be a fairly hefty incentive to take up a life of crime for an otherwise law-abiding person.

So if the consequences of a life of crime are reduced to 'nothing nasty will happen to you if you get caught' what incentive is there for a young man (and it is young men) to stay on the straight and narrow in the first place?