Rehabilitate or Punish: How Should Society Treat Criminals?
Society has always been at odds with how to treat criminals. Centuries ago, various countries employed torture. Prior to the eighteenth century, England was renowned for using such methods as the rack, flogging, stoning, public humiliation, starvation, fines, and hanging criminals from meat hooks. Then, in 1791, the United States of America instituted the eighth amendment which protected criminals from cruel or unusual punishment.
During the 1960s, society moved towards the rehabilitation of criminals and away from simple punishment. Then in the 1980s, the shift moved towards incarceration instead of rehabilitation. Finally, in the 1990s, a split emerged between those who advocate stricter laws and harsher punishment and those who argue for an increase in the quality and number of rehabilitation programs for offenders. The trend seems to be shifting towards stricter laws and harsher punishment. Which works best at preventing crime?
There is as much controversy over how offenders should be treated as there is regarding the best way to prevent crime and criminal recidivism. According to Shelly Bain (2000), the “…threat of incarceration would not deter crime.” To support this view, Bain points out that, despite the fact that the United States of America hands down the longest jail sentences (except for the former U.S.S.R. and South Africa), it still maintains the highest jail and crime rate. Of eighth million prisoners currently in the world, one million are in the U.S.A.
Statistics show that the number of criminals executed is increasing in the U.S.A. In 1999, 98 inmates were executed in 20 states, with the most occurring in Texas. The majority of those executed were white (61) with blacks coming in second (33) and 94 were executed by lethal injection. All of those currently on death row (again mostly whites) are there because of a murder charge and two out of three had committed a prior felony. One in twelve of these inmates had been convicted of a prior murder. The average age of an inmate on death row is 28 years.
Given the above findings, it seems as though imprisonment has little effect on offenders. In fact, the likelihood of a person re-offending increases drastically with the number of crimes committed. In other words, the more illegal acts a person engages in, the more likely he or she is to re-offend. So, why bother incarcerating criminals who will simply re-offend again?
Morgan Reynolds, Director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analyses, firmly believes that society needs stricter laws and harsher punishments for lawbreakers. According to his interviews with inmates, burglars tend to avoid areas that are heavily patrolled or aggressively policed. Nine out of ten robbers said they avoided breaking into occupied residences. One inmate confessed, “After my eight years for robbery, I told myself then I’ll never do another robbery.” Facilities which place prisoners in isolation for 23 hours per day only have a four percent recidivism rate.
Countries, such as China and Hungary, allow inmates to socialize most of the time. China also places inmates in work programs, allows playtimes, singing the national anthem daily, hand out longer sentences than the U.S.A., and limits visits to one per month. Both China and Hungary boast of only a four percent recidivism rate.
Ehrlich (1973) found that crime decreased as the probability of prison and the time served increased. Getting caught seemed to be the greatest predictor of criminal behavior than sentence length. There also seems to be a correlation between a lack of punishment and an increase in criminal habits.
One need only look at their own children to find similar findings. If a child’s destructive behavior goes unpunished, the child sees no reason to stop and will continue engaging in that type of behavior. Some children will misbehave simply to get attention, as if asking for punishment. If ignored, their behavior tends to escalate until something is done. Similarly, if a criminal’s behavior goes unpunished, why would he or she stop?
According to Reynolds (2000), “even career criminals often give up crime because they don’t want to go back to prison.” Although, if this were true, they wouldn’t be career criminals in the first place. In terms of rehabilitative programs, Reynolds (2000) argues that, “some programs work, some don’t, and some may even increase crime.” His suggestion is to stop crime before it happens, which he believes starts with the family. The most common factor relating all criminals is the lack of an intact family upbringing. Crime can be lessened by keeping families together. Unfortunately, society focuses on treating the problem rather than prevention.
Rehabilitation is a relatively new concept when compared to using punishment as a means of curbing criminal activity. Arguments are frequently made regarding the high cost of simply incarcerating people, especially when nothing is being done with inmates during their lock-up. The United States spends 26 billion dollars a year to incarcerate people. How useful is a forced “time out” if the perpetrator doesn’t engage in some kind of relearning and remorse?
The few existing programs have mixed results in terms of benefits. One issue is the difficulty of engaging rehabilitation participants and instilling motivation for them to change, since none of the inmates would have been in such a program had they not be incarcerated.
Instituted forced change rarely works. For instance, many abusive men are forced into some form of counseling as a condition of their parole for having abused their partner. Although some men over time develop the motivation and desire to change their aggressive tendencies, the majority of men choose to deny they have a problem and blame others for “making” them angry. Despite intensive counseling, the majority of abusive men continue to abuse others within a short period of time following counseling and make very little progress.
Researchers have shown that there are some groups of prisoners who seen unable (or unwilling) to be rehabilitated. Sex offenders, child molesters, serial killers, and repeat offenders seem unchanged by any kind of therapy. The evidence is clear when one looks at the recidivism rate of such criminals (nearly 100%).
However, there is evidence to suggest that young offenders do benefit from remedial programming. Juveniles are far less likely to recommit an offense if society intervenes early (not after they have committed several crimes) and sternly (as opposed to useless warnings). This, once again, speaks more towards prevention and perhaps should be the focus of law makers and the justice system.
Regardless of whether one believes in stricter laws and punishment or would rather see the implementation of high quality treatment programs, society must make the prevention of crime a key priority. If people cannot feel safe, they cannot carry on in their day-to-day lives. Safety is a core need and a right that everyone should have. To irresponsibly teach our children to “just say no” is insufficient for deterring crime in a world where crime runs rampant. We each need to take responsibility for our own behavior if society is to truly wipe out crime.