When a person commits a crime and is caught, they often go to jail. Once in jail, they are under strict rules about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. This is punishment. However, many jails also offer rehabilitative services, like counseling or work programs. Which is more beneficial, the punishment aspects of jail, or the rehabilitative aspects? To answer this question, one must look at several different aspects of the penal system.
One of the major arguments that has occurred in this debate is which deters crime more effectively, punishment or rehabilitation? It has generally been shown that punishment has a deterrent effect on crime, because the punishment is worse than not committing the crime. Theoretically, this means that the old saying “if you don’t want to serve the time, don’t do the crime” is correct.
A person would be more deterred from committing a crime in the first place if he perceived jail to be a bad place to go. However, recent research shows that punishment is not much of a deterrent, because the recidivism rate (the rate at which people commit repeat crimes) is up to 63%. Instead, rehabilitation appears to impact recidivism more positively, by teaching former criminals job skills, finding them places to live, and counseling them to get off drugs (Larrabee).
Victims of crimes, especially violent ones, may see the punishment issue in a different light. While it is easy to look at percentages and see that rehabilitation might better serve a criminal, many people do not think criminals should have many rights left. Up until the last few years, criminals’ rights were highly protected from the moment they were accused and straight through their jail sentences.
Victims and their needs were ignored. However, in 2004, President Bush signed an act which allowed victims of crimes rights, too. Most people (70% according to one study), especially crime victims, feel that punishment is the primary function of prison. If prison were to be changed around to focus on rehabilitation, then victims may feel that the criminals were being treated too leniently, considering what they had done (Larrabee).
This effect cannot be ignored, because victims (and others) support the prisons with their tax dollars and by voting in sheriffs and other lawmakers. Also, victims would obviously be upset to find out that a person who had murdered their family member was getting a good place to say, being treated well, having access to free medical and psychological care, and being set up with job skills and a place to live upon finishing his or her sentence. The victims would likely protest. Perception is as important as reality in this case.
People may end up refusing to pass levies for the prisoners, or refusing to support public officials who cared more about rehabilitating prisoners than about punishing them for their crimes. This has a huge social effect, because people believe that jail is a place where people go to get punished if they have done something wrong. Prisons and counseling centers are not the same thing, and most believe they should not be (Larrabee).
Of course, the criminals themselves don’t see it this way. Some criminals only commit crimes out of necessity (especially stealing or dealing, which are ways to make money or get stuff easily if the person is incapable of holding a job or making enough money to support himself or his family). These criminals should not be treated harshly and punished severely, because this limits the criminal’s ability to provide for himself after his prison sentence, and will likely increase the rate of recidivism simply because the criminal has no other means to rely on.
If rehabilitation is offered instead, the person can learn about other options in life – not using and selling drugs, getting an education (finishing high school or a GED, going to trade school or community college), and more. This rehabilitation can help a person get off drugs, get real job training, find a job, find a place to live, etc. so that after the jail sentence is up, the person is neither committing crimes to make ends meet, or living off the government’s welfare system. This saves the tax payers money, and it also gives the former criminal some feeling of self-sufficiency and self-worth, and decreases the likelihood that he or she will “need” to commit crimes in the future.
This, too, has a social effect, because if former criminals are seen bettering themselves rather than continuing to commit crimes, society will feel better about the positive effects of rehabilitation. It may take time and trying different types of rehabilitation, but if it could be proven to work better than punishment to the layperson (and not just to those in the ‘know’), then rehabilitation might have more overall positive effects. Other social effects include on the crime-committing population.
It is already known that some people who are homeless commit crimes because they would like a warm place to stay and guaranteed meals. It can be theorized that if jail were an even more inviting place – one that helped with job training and finding places to live – that even more of this population would commit crimes simply to take advantage of these services. While this will likely be true in some cases, it probably is not in most. However, if people believe that this will occur often, then they may fight against rehabilitation in jails.
This is related to the issue that many people feel that jails have become too “nice” today. Instead of being a place where hard punishment is handed out to those who have committed crimes, jails have TVs, exercise equipment, free time, internet access, libraries, and more. Some say that jail is a nicer place than places where some people actually live. Instead, these people are calling for harsher punishment of criminals. Rehabilitation efforts, which would probably increase the view of jail as being a “nice” place to go, would be fought by this population.
Also, rehabilitation appears to have better effects on fiscal policy. If criminals are not repeat-offending, then tax dollars are saved on police salaries (they are not as busy solving crimes and apprehending suspects), court costs (including lawyers for those who cannot afford one), and prison costs (paying for a person to stay in jail, receive three meals a day, medical care, etc.). If the person is also not living on welfare because of job training, the government is saving more money by not having to pay the welfare. Rehabilitation appears to have many positive effects.
At this point in time, most people are not ready to see jail as anything but a system of punishment. For now, due to the vast social effects, and the work that needs to be done on a rehabilitation system, jail must be considered a place for punishment. However, in the meantime, officials should be looking for ways to improve the quality of life of former prisoners through rehabilitation programs, and should be studying the effects these programs have on the recidivism rate and the tax dollars. Only after more work can jail become a place where criminals are truly rehabilitated to become more productive members of society.
Larrabee, A K (2006). “Punishment vs Rehabilitation in the Criminal Justice System.” Associated Content.