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Can Prison Deter Crime? Essay

“Danbury wasn’t a prison, it was a crime school. I went in with a Bachelor of marijuana, came out with a Doctorate of cocaine” – George Jung

The above quote was given by notorious international drug lord, and one of the most successful career criminal of modern times, George Jung, when discussing the flaws of the modern penal system. While subsequent to this original incarceration, George did also frequently state that he would never allow himself to be detained in prison again, it is obvious that the very mechanism intent on deterring him from such deviance instead served as a stepping stone in the advancement of his criminal career (Porter, 1993). This double edged effect of the detainment of criminals, identified above, brings into question the effectiveness of the most widely recognised method of dealing with criminal activity of modern times. The physical confinement of deviants in society can be traced back to the writings of Plato discussing prisons in ancient Athens. Likewise, archaeologists and historians have combined to describe the ‘Great Prison’ of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (Morris & Rothman, 1998).

The modern model of the prison that we would know today, with prison acting as a mechanism at the disposal of the court to a significant extent, is actually relatively young with its origins traced back a mere 300 hundred years to Western Europe and the United States (Coyle, 2005). In the 18th century, the Quakers developed this idea of transforming the prison into a sanctuary for reformation, whereby a criminal would be transformed through isolation, forced labour and religious instruction (Kontos, 2010). Though the methods and motivations of this incarceration have changed over time, the sheer longevity of employing physical detention as a response to behaviour deemed unacceptable by greater society, pays testament to its undeniable rational.

Despite general acceptance of this method across the centuries, questions of its effectiveness as a deterrent of criminal activity have become prominent in more modern times with emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment and retribution now evident. In this essay I will attempt to address some of these questions beginning with an overview of societies changing motivations for and expectations of this system. Following this, I will then give an overview of the arguments that say prison simply does not effectively act as a deterrent towards crime. To provide an unbiased balance to the piece, I will then give account of the counter arguments to this, which take the more traditional view of prison still serving its purpose in society. Finally, I will conclude by briefly giving my own opinion on the issue with relation to referenced arguments.

Motivations for/ Expectations of Prisons

While it is generally accepted that the presence of the prison as a tool of the criminal justice system as a whole has a positive effect as a deterrent towards crime, there is little evidence to suggest that marginal changes of the inner workings inside the prison has any effect as to the level of this deterrence (Morris & Rothman, 1998). This fact would suggest that a debate into the motivations and therefore nature of incarceration is meaningless, since it is only the basic denial of physical liberty that appears to be relevant. Despite this, I feel it is important to understand the fundamental motivational factors of society behind the prison and how that affects its workings. After all a lack of clarity of direction and conflicting ideologies can have negative effects, only condemning further the failures of the prison system. The functions of the modern day prison can be divided into three main sections which I will now briefly discuss:


Punishment would seem the most obvious function of a prison and indeed the Criminal Justice Act 2003 states: “The court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence……..was so serious that neither a fine nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence” (Criminal Justice Act 2003; In; Coyle, 2005; 12) The more sever the crime the greater the level of punishment, without mention of mental state or rehabilitation. Indeed you, often hear of people criticising that a criminal “got off” with community sentences or a fine. Other public criticism also lies in the treatment of detainees while in prison. Frequently, it is argued that prisoners are treated too well in prison, with the modern prison often being equipped with TVs and other such luxuries. While the use of a TV does not have any effect on the rehabilitative effects and does not cause any greater risk to the law abiding public, it is simply this idea that one must be punished in prison as retribution for the crimes they committed.

Indeed there could be argued a rational for such punishment to ensure acceptance of the system by society, for if victims feel that these criminals have got off too lightly they are more likely to exact their own revenge, leading to even more law and disorder. As well as ensuring a public acceptance of justice, a direct link is often made between a greater the level of punishment providing a greater deterrent to potential perpetrators. A short sentence in a comfortable prison would not provide the same deterrent to commit crime as a long sentence in an uncomfortable prison. Additionally, prior to imprisonment, the probability that one could be sent to prison for committing a crime must be weighed up against the length and standard of sentence to ensure deterrence.

For example, 0.0001% of perpetrators being sent to a sub standard South American labour camp for 40 years might not have the same effect as 99% of prisoners being sent to a more comfortable prison for 6 months. This being said a correlation between punishment and deterrence can at times defy logic with Eysenck using the example of countrie’s murder rates not being related to whether or not they employ the death penalty (Eysenck, 1964). With the civilization and democratization of modern societies, naturally, more severe punishments such as corporal punishment or labour camps are now being less utilised.

A mentality of men coming to prison as a punishment rather than men coming to prison to be punished has now developed (Coyle, 2005). Foucault described this transition from torture to incarceration as born out of sympathy for the tortured bodies of offenders (Kontos, 2010) With the detention in prison now being the punishment itself, issues such as sentence length are now paramount in providing an adequate deterrent.


This idea of prison as a place of reform grew from the 19th century onwards and the notion can be seen as attractive on many accounts. Firstly, it provides great justification for sentencing for both the judicial system and society as a whole, providing a moral high ground that the punishment model does not. In this model criminals are seen as a minority who display traits that distinguish them from greater society. Most crime is seen as being committed by this minority and therefore the reformation of this group will lead to a significant reduction in crime. Criminals are not seen as victim of circumstances, but rather have underlying traits which can be altered, meaning criminals can be released back into the same circumstances as a functioning member of society.

The principle that humans can be encouraged to alter their behaviour is a sound one however it could be argued that the prison is not the venue for this to occur (Morris & Rothman, 1998). Foucault again summarizes the issues well saying that personal change comes from personal choice and cannot be forced upon someone (Coyle, 2005). Difficulties can arise from indecision as to the exact purpose of prisons when sentencing length reflects desire for punishment, while incarceration reflects desire for reform. Short term sentences provide little use for character reform and therefore little justification for prison. This being said if one is to remain in prison for a period of time it would seem rational that efforts would be made to reform the character regardless (Kontos, 2010).

Public Protection/Incapacitation:

It is undeniable that at least for the period that a criminal is in prison the greater public is protected from them, by virtue of the fact they are physically unable to commit crime. Due to the nature of short sentences and the negative impact prison can have on a young criminal’s propensity to crime, this protection can prove very limited. Rather than deterring crime, from this perspective, prison simply makes it impossible for criminals to commit crime for the periods which they are incarcerated. A criminal’s life career follows a relatively predictable cycle. Criminals tend to be most active from mid to late adolescence until their late twenties.

Gradually they become less active in their early thirties and this propensity virtually disappears by their mid thirties (Morris & Rothman, 1998). In many facets of crime, repeat offenders commit small offences and therefore are given short sentences, meaning they are soon once again capable of committing crimes, leaving society exposed. This issue was addressed in the first half of the 20th century implementing preventative detention when dealing with repeat offenders. Additional time was put on top of the standard sentence for repeat offenders preventing them from reoffending. However, this form of sentencing was seen as unjust and quickly abandoned (Coyle, 2005).

Now that we have established society’s motivations behind prison and the deterring effect they have on crime, we will now examine the argument that prison in fact does not deter crime and in many cases can even encourage it.

Prison Doesn’t Deter Crime

There are several factors which contribute to an actor’s propensity to crime both before initial imprisonment and after. This distinction between before and after initial imprisonment is important due to the high rates of re-imprisonment in Ireland. If prison is to be found to deter crime directly, then interaction between prisoner and prison should address these issues. The first factor which affects an actor’s propensity to commit crime is the personality of the criminal. There are two types of personality defects which can lead to an actor: psychological and psychopathic. For criminals with psychological issues, the factors behind the criminal’s first and second or third offence are likely to be the same. Factors can be a range of issues, from addiction to a mental health disorder such as paedophilia. Simple punishment methods that may deter “normal” actors do not apply here and a lack of treatment or adequate rehabilitation would simply lead to convictions on a regular basis.

This then brings into question the levels of rehabilitation in prisons in order to deter future offences. As already mentioned, prison is far from the ideal venue for mental health improvement or treatment and relapse-prevention programmes have not proven successful (Eysenck, 1964). Psychopathic traits can be defined as “an individual whose character traits deviate so far from the culturally accepted norm that he finds difficulty in conforming to ordinary social demands” (West, 1963; 60). Psychopaths show numerous symptoms such as childlike tantrums, sporadic violence, a lack of social learning and emotional indifference (lack of remorse or guilt) (West, 1963). Again, to deter such deviants, treatment is needed which perhaps would be more suitable to a mental hospital rather than an institution based on the Quakers fundamental premise of isolation and hard labour.

Contrary to logic the actual experience inside prison itself can also prove to increase ones propensity to commit crime. Though some authors (Saunders & Billante, 2002) do argue that increasing committals does reduce crime, and the unprecedented 20 year reduction in crime combined with an equally unprecedented rise in prison population does give them ammunition. Many preachers of this high imprisonment rate model blatantly disregards trends in other countries citing the undeniably extraordinary figures in the U.S. as undisputable evidence. However, even in countries as close to the US as Canada, flaws have already begun to emerge with Piche stating that “the use of imprisonment has failed to enhance public safety in locations that have shifted towards a mass incarceration model” (Piche, 2010; 23).

Many would argue that young offenders, who so often enter prison for short sentences resulting from minor offences, come out of prison more devious criminals then when they went in. A young troubled youth who has already become involved in minor crime enters into a system where he is forced to socialise with more hardened criminals, often with gang affiliations. With much crime being affiliated with drugs and gang affiliation, immediately the young criminal becomes much more likely to reoffend due to his apparently rehabilitative stint in prison with prison acting as a recruitment agency for gangs (Rogan, 2011). Potentially a young criminal who entered prison for a relatively minor offence can leave prison with criminal underworld ties, gang affiliations and the pressures to commit crime that come with that.

Additionally, after this initial incarceration the young criminal is then known to the authorities and is then more likely to be caught committing crime. While it could not be said that entering prison for a short stint is an incentive to commit crime, it could certainly not be seen as a deterrent for an already delinquent juvenile (Rogan, 2011). While the deterring effect of prison does stretch far beyond the small minority who are at some stage committed to prison, the fact that most recorded crime, warranting incarceration, is committed by a small minority would suggest that greatest deterring affects could be had by at least reducing inmate’s propensity to crime. This prison link between prison and gangs and drugs cannot be over emphasised. Drugs are seen as a leading factor of crime, both as users and dealers.

On average it is said that drug users will have contact with the criminal justice system at least once a year. This effect can be direct or indirect. Schleslinger found that while many burglars are drug and alcohol dependent only a small minority have been actually intoxicated during the burglaries, meaning an indirect affect (Schleslinger, 2000). Schleslinger also found a strong relationship between crime and drugs and concluded that someone who became involved in the criminal lifestyle was likely to become involved in substance abuse. It would appear that the prison creates an environment where a troubled youth who is struggling to find direction is given every opportunity to fail in the prison environment.

Prison Does Deter Crime

Despite the fact that it has been found that over half of those released from prison will be re-imprisoned within four years there are those who act as advocates for prison as a mechanism of deterrence towards crime and they are not without convincing statistics of their own (O’Donnell, 2005). In the late 20th century two major policy changes occurred that coincided with the greatest decrease in crime in modern history in the US, and more specifically the pioneering state of New York. Firstly, the revolutionary “Broken Windows” theory was developed and implemented in New York. Secondly, a conscious decision was made to ensure that more offenders would end up in prison, where before alternative sanctions would have been implemented.

The rationale behind this second shift was based on academic literature in the field of economics rather than sociology and a brief overview of this argument provided a brief summary of why prison deters crime economically. The piece, originally written in the 1960’s by Chicago economist Gary Becker, suggested that crime, like any other business, was the result of a calculation between benefits vs. risks/cost. From this Becker reasoned that by changing this calculus, by causing the risks and costs to outweigh the benefits, the rate of crime could be decreased (Saunders & Billante, 2002).

Much discussion developed out of Becker’s argument, and though it was not agreed by everyone that all criminals were in fact rational utility maximisers, eventually from this it was decided that to increase cost and risks in this equation firstly they must increase the probability of being caught and second ensure that offenders saw prison time as a result of their actions. Funding was increased to ensure capture and conviction and new policies were implemented to increase the severity of penalties resulting in both high prison rates (doubling from 1970-1980 and again doubling from 1981-1995) but also drastic decreases in crime outlined below (Morris & Rothman, 1998).

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