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.