The following was my response to a question on Quora: Is imprisonment for punishment or rehabilitation?
There are five objectives to any penalty rendered by the criminal justice system, although any one component of a sentence seldom satisfies all five:
- Retribution: Punishment. Make them pay, make it hurt.
- Rehabilitation: The criminal is sick, and we can make him well.
- Incapacitation: Keep the criminal from being a criminal, most often by locking him away.
- Deterrence: Make the sentence a warning to others who might consider the same conduct.
- Restoration: Make the victim whole again, usually by payment of damages. Of all the objectives, this is the only one that focuses on the victim as opposed to the offender.
We’re presently at the end of the punishment curve of a rehabilitation-punishment philosophy cycle that completes every 20-30 years. In the 1960s-1980s, rehabilitation was the rage, with all sorts of “therapeutic” programs that used everything from physical labor to acupuncture. A criminologist named Robert Martinson published a paper in the early 1970s, detailing his comprehensive study of 231 diverse rehabilitation programs then operating in U.S. prisons, and concluded that “nothing works.” His estimates indicated that any rehab program that succeeded in reforming 15% of its participants was wildly successful in comparison with the whole. Martinson killed himself in 1980, and you can draw whatever conclusions from that you like.
In the late 1980s, legislatures began enacting laws to impose long prison terms on violent and repeat offenders, and courts were compelled to follow sentencing guidelines that removed much of the discretion traditionally granted to judges. Regardless of the circumstances of the crime, many judges determined their sentence by finding where the lines intersected on a chart with offenses listed on one axis and previous convictions on another. A first-offense rapist might get probation, where a shoplifter of cigarettes with three previous convictions got 20 years.
We’re now at a place where we are reconsidering those harsh mandatory sentences not because they may have been unjust, but because they are costing us too much money. We have more people in prison than any country in the world (with the possible exception of China), and we pay dearly to keep them there. Prison is definitely punishment. If anyone is rehabilitated through a prison program, it’s a miracle. It may be impossible to rehabilitate some people.
- Sometimes I think we should just abandon the idea of treatment for violent predatory offenders and simply warehouse them, providing them with basic comforts with the understanding that they’re never going to get out, and life can be tolerable if they behave themselves and don’t harm staff members or each other.
- We need to provide much better funding to community mental health programs, because as many as 1/3 of inmates are seriously mentally ill and at least some of those are treatable.
- We need to fund more and better community corrections programs, where probation and parole officers have caseloads in the low double digits instead of the mid triples.
- We also need more and better drug treatment programs with some bite to them: you get treatment as long as you work the program. If you drop out, there will be serious and unpleasant consequences.
If we don’t do these things or something like them, we’re going to wind up as a society that exists mainly to keep its criminals in jail.