Prisons not good at rehabilitating; very good at self-perpetuating

An article in this morning’s Age demonstrating why imprisoning people convicted of crimes should be a last resort – because it’s very ineffective at rehabilitating people (particularly compared with other more constructive (and cheaper to the public) sentencing options like community based orders or intensive corrections orders) – reminds me about a post and video I saw last week about how the American system of “randomised draconianism” actually makes the problem worse:

UCLA Professor of Public Affairs Mark Kleiman is “angry about having too much crime and an intolerable number of people behind bars.” The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, yet, says Kleiman, our high incarceration rate isn’t making us safer.

In his book, “When Brute Force Fails,” Kleiman explains that, when it comes to punishment, there is a trade-off between severity and swiftness. For too long the U.S. has erred heavily on the side of severity, but if we concentrate enforcement and provide immediate consequences for law-breakers, Kleiman says we can both reduce the crime rate and put fewer people in prison.

The video is worth watching, particularly for law-and-order types who think the solution to crime is to keep ratcheting up the severity of sentences. Of course, that that doesn’t work is hardly news to those of us who deal with the courts day-in, day-out, and see first-hand which sentencing approaches work in reducing crimes and which don’t (although, sadly, the US doesn’t have the same non-custodial options we have here, so the professor doesn’t address them).

What was news to me, since we haven’t quite gone all the way down this road yet, was a link in the comments to the above post regarding how private prisons are now a source of cheap, effectively slave labour on which the US government now depends:

…the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

Combine that with the recently exposed scandal in Pennsylvania where judges were sending children to jail to receive kickbacks from the local private prison operator, and you have to doubt whether introducing a motive like profit into the justice system (which is what privatising sections of it necessarily involves) can ever be a good idea.

But it is just what happens when consumers of hysterical tabloid media believe what they’re told and demand politicians send more people to jail. Even though it doesn’t work in reducing crime as well as other sentencing options. Even though it is a lot more expensive. Even though it pushes us down a path where what happens to citizens is corrupted by the interests of those who make money from them being locked up. Even though once governments become reliant on cheap labour and outsourcing their responsibilities it becomes almost impossible for them to ever undo that damage.

I really hope Australians take a good hard look at the US approach some in our most pervasive media suggest we emulate, and observe closely where it leads – before it’s too late.

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26 responses to “Prisons not good at rehabilitating; very good at self-perpetuating

  1. Jeremy , this new article will probably be of interest to you in light of your post:

    Prison Without Walls

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/09/prison-without-walls/8195/

  2. Jeremy, it would be useful to non-legal types to outline some of the “non – custodial” options the Aus legal system has.

  3. Splatterbottom

    The purpose of jail is the punishment of offenders. Rehabilitation is less important, and will come about, if at all, through a change in attitude of offenders.

    With the decline in public morality and the destruction of families that is endemic in our society it is no surprise that crime is on the increase.

    Unfortunately we live in a society where celebrity and wealth are worshiped, where the criminal lifestyle is glorified in popular culture and where family values are regularly denigrated by the intellectually smug. Civic virtue needs to be promoted not denigrated. This is well beyond the capacity of the morally vacant chattering classes.

  4. SB, you’re not a policy speech writer for One Nation are you?

  5. “The purpose of jail is the punishment of offenders.”

    Wrong. Legal sanctions for criminal behaviour, of which jail is just one strand, have a multitude of purposes. Separation from the victims and wider public, punishment, and rehabilitation are the main ones.

    “it is no surprise that crime is on the increase. ”

    Wrong. Crime is on the decrease. Also, what decline in public morality, and what destruction of families? Ronsondalby is right – you are mouthing One Nation-like platitudes rather than making a sociological argument.

  6. With the decline in public morality and the destruction of families that is endemic in our society it is no surprise that crime is on the increase.

    How inconvenient for your emotive arguement that crime is actually falling.

    We of the chattering classes know this.
    It’s time you of the Tabloid Class learned it.

    Cheers.

  7. Sorry, should have read; argument

    Cheers

  8. Prisons may not be good for rehabilitating people, but they are very good for keeping them from breaking into my house and stealing my stuff.

    I do take your point about the US prison population: much of that is made up of non-violent offenders who have fallen afoul either of the war on drugs or the tendency to make everything in that country a felony. There should be other options for them.

    But violent crime? Throw the book at ‘em. You simply cannot tell me that two years – with the possibility of parole in six to nine months – is appropriate for this horrendous series of acts: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/teenager-jailed-for-degrading-attack-on-burns-victim-20100831-14ax4.html

    Memo to self: Never be the victim of some sociopath with a “difficult childhood”.

  9. The purpose of jail is the punishment of offenders. Rehabilitation is less important

    LOL SB.

    Just out of interest, what ‘family values’ are you talking about when you assert that “family values are regularly denigrated by the intellectually smug”.

    I’m actually struggling to understand your argument as the only example I can recall of policies being described as ‘anti-family’ is in relation to legalisation of gay marriage (which I thought you supported).

    What family values have been diminished in your view?

  10. Splatterbottom

    Mondo, the argument I’m trying to make is a bit conflicted. I don’t particularly like aspects of society, but I certainly don’t want to limit the ability of people to make their own life choices. In fact I believe that it is the responsibility of each person to make their own choices, and not just roll along with the prevailing cultural norms. This involves a bit of consideration, and an ability to make plans rather than just living in the now.

    The glamourisation of destructive and criminal lifestyles in popular culture is retrograde. The answer isn’t censorship, but it would be nice if people came to understand the negative aspects.

    There are not enough voices making obvious points like that children are better off with two parents working together at the enterprise of parenthood, that bad parenting is detrimental to children, as is parental separation. There are not enough voices making the point that early and frequent sexual activity impairs the ability to form stable relationships later in life.

    People are ultimately responsible for the choices they make, and in terms of reducing crime, the object is to have a society where people to make sensible non-criminal choices. I don’t see this as the role of prison, but I do think people should be able to present such views in the common square without being mocked for it. The people who should be mocked are those who think it is cool to be transgressive.

  11. “The purpose of jail is the punishment of offenders.”

    Maybe. But the purpose of the criminal justice system, the first and most important purpose, is reducing crime. Jail assists with this only as a last resort, with people who cannot be rehabilitated, or people who have committed acts so heinous that deterrence is more important than rehabilitation.

    In the vast majority of cases, rehabilitation – which is about reducing crime – should be a far more important consideration.

  12. Splatterbottom

    Jail reduces crime. The problems arise when people are allowed out of jail!

    More seriously, rehabilitation is about getting people to make better choices. They would be more likely to do so if our culture was less hedonistic, and if people could say so without being mocked by the illuminati.

  13. This involves a bit of consideration, and an ability to make plans rather than just living in the now.

    I agree – although this is hardly an ideological position

    The glamourisation of destructive and criminal lifestyles in popular culture is retrograde.

    Still agree, although still struggling to link these views to the “chattering classes”

    There are not enough voices making the point that early and frequent sexual activity impairs the ability to form stable relationships later in life.

    Ahh – there’s the link. Those bloody hippies and their sexually liberal views are at the root of today’s increased crime stats. Apparently.

    It’s an interesting assertion, if somewhat unfounded.

  14. Uh-oh – I seem to have broken the tags.

  15. What I think is interesting is that whereas traditionally the lower classes took their behavioural cues from those higher up the ladder, things have flipped in the last few decades, and it is ghetto culture that is glamourised. Of course, while the upper-middle classes and the wealthy are largely insulated from the consequences of bad behaviour by money (and can afford lawyers, rehab, etc) the poor must suffer the consequences if they screw up. This is why middle-class/working-class society might have once seemed so stifling: there was a strong disincentive to doing anything that might weaken a rising family’s tenuous grasp on what it had achieved. The removal of behavioural stigma and the creation of all manner of government support programs have done much to reverse this: the positive consequences of “liberation” come with a lot of concomitant negatives.

  16. Splatterbottom

    Mondo, the assertion is not unfounded. There are quite a few studies which support the contention I made.

    You are right about the evil of hippies, though. Every child needs a good classical education, especially in these depraved times.

  17. “There are not enough voices making obvious points like that children are better off with two parents working together at the enterprise of parenthood, that bad parenting is detrimental to children, as is parental separation”

    Probably because they are by no means self-evident. It’s easy to blame the “downfall of society” on rising divorce rates, but you’ve got a few problems proving it. Namely:

    1) Crime rates are not actually rising. How can something be responsible for a problem that only exists in the heads of the media and those who buy it without looking into it

    2) Correlation is not Causation.

    3) Children subjected to the stress, unpleasantness and unhealthy environment of watching two parents battle to stay together in a clearly broken, unfixable relationship do worse than parents who have separated but are committed to raising their children in a co-operative way.

    “There are not enough voices making the point that early and frequent sexual activity impairs the ability to form stable relationships later in life.”

    That is the single biggest load of bullshit I have ever heard in my entire life. The idea that people should “wait” until some arbitrary maturation completely separate from actual, physical sexual maturity is a relatively modern phenomenon that has its roots in the discomfort of those who are confronted by adolescent sexuality and their own physical attraction to adolescents. Never, at any point in history has such an emphasis on “protecting innocence” in sexually mature young people been in play. Nor is the suggestion you make actually backed up by any scientific data.

    It’s contradicted by history, and contradicted by our own biology. The female body, in particular, is not designed to “wait”.

  18. “There are not enough voices making the point that early and frequent sexual activity impairs the ability to form stable relationships later in life.”

    Bollocks. I’ve been a frequent wanker from an early age and have been as happily married as can be expected for the past 22 years without infidelity.
    My wife and I have a very stable relationship… though she does reckon I can be a bit of a tosser at times. ;-)

    BTW, Splats, did you not see or are you ignoring my earlier comment that takes you to task about your “crime is on the increase” hyperbole?

    Cheers.

  19. That first paragraph is meant to be in blockquotes.
    What have you done Mondo?

    Cheers

  20. Splatterbottom

    Marek, NSW government crime stats should be treated with caution, just ask Philip Arantz.

    The relevant period is from the 60’s to now. The trend was a steep increase until about 1990 and a gradual decrease since. Overall, you would expect a continuing decrease as society ages.

  21. Splatterbottom

    Marek, I missed your comment the first time round, and, as you can see from my above comment, had to stretch things a bit for a reply.

  22. Shabadootwo, I have to admit that, not only do I agree with everything you wrote at 5:59 pm, but it’s something over which I’ve been grinding my teeth for the past ten years or so.

    I absolutely abhor the idea of ‘Gansta’ culture being fashionable and something to be emulated.
    Be it the American version, imported through music and a handful of films, or the Australian iteration being promoted through tabloid TV, press and magazines.
    It all glorifies the exact same thing that is complained about by tabloid TV, press and magazines.

    Worse still is the deification of the average person.
    I couldn’t care less what the Average Australian thinks.
    In fact, what the Average Australian thinks is usually something to be despised.
    I strive to be above average. I only take counsel from those who are above average. I encourage my daughter to be above average and I hope like Hell my daughter marries somebody who is above average.
    There is nobody who would wish for the opposite, yet it has become politically incorrect to say so out loud.
    So much so that the word ‘elite’ has become a derogative.

    It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Cheers.

    BTW. I’m an intellectual and cultural gadfly. I feed off the work of my betters without pretence of being of any use to anybody.
    Still, I’d that than surrender to the Wii or CFC.

  23. Oh c’mon Splatz!
    Of course there was no crime in Australia in the 1960’s.
    Nor was there any in Rhodesia during the same period.

    I don’t know if you travel very much.
    I don’t know if you know people from elsewhere.
    I do know that you have a poor appreciation of how safe, friendly, safe, crime-free, safe, and pleasant it is to live in Australia.

    My golf partner, and recent(ish) arrival, from South Africa can’t get used to the fact that he’s not allowed to carry a firearm (and he’s a black man)!
    My Texan/Californian neighbour (ten years here) has only decided that he can come to a full stop at intersections in Sydney without fear of a carjacking.
    My mate Johnny Wen (ex Honkers) can’t believe how Hurstville isn’t a hotbed of organised crime.
    Jorn from Denmark loves how people in Australia are <inearly as friendly as the Danes.
    My brother (from Montreal) couldn’t believe that, despite asking repeatedly, nobody could offer any “no go zones” for any of the major Australian cities that he visited.

    This is a great country.
    Australians are kind, friendly and not prone to derangement (despite the best efforts of Glenn Beck).
    Most importantly, Australia is an amazingly safe place to be!
    Embrace it, spruik it and be proud of it.
    Don’t tell lies that deny it.

    Cheers.

  24. Splatterbottom

    Keri, I have different views to you. I do think that a happy two parent home is optimal for the raising of children. The evidence suggests that parental separation is a major factor in childhood depression.

    Further, early promiscuity has emotional and health risks. Instead of acknowledging this, it seems the policy is to arm the kiddies with reams of rubber and encourage them to go at it. They should at least be taught that rubberised sex is second rate and that long-term relationships are healthier.

    Marek, I had dinner with two people last evening. The Singaporean is definitely of the view that Australia is dirtier than Singapore and that there is more crime in Australia. The Indian guy says he is in constant fear of violence, although he did note that a lot of the violence directed at Indians comes from other migrant groups.

    Apparently your first-person forays into the world of sex did you no significant damage. However, whitewater wristing is not a promiscuous activity.

    I agree this is a great country, and I appreciate the freedoms we all enjoy. I have chosen my own lifestyle, and I reserve the right to advocate social values that I believe would improve it. You of course enjoy the same right, and that is the point of this discussion.

  25. SB, you are entitled to have any opinion you want. No issue with that. My issue is with you ascribing a proven link or presenting your opinion – contradicted by study after study and human biology itself – as if it is a self-evident, proven fact. It is no such thing.

    “The evidence suggests that parental separation is a major factor in childhood depression.”

    Again, correlation is not causation. Nor do any of the studies I’ve seen track long-term effects of short-term depression during childhood of separated children, nor do they look for positive outcomes such as better coping mechanisms in adults of divorced/separated parents.

    “Further, early promiscuity has emotional and health risks. Instead of acknowledging this, it seems the policy is to arm the kiddies with reams of rubber and encourage them to go at it. They should at least be taught that rubberised sex is second rate and that long-term relationships are healthier.”

    ANY promiscuity has emotional and health risks. This is not confined or unique to “early” promiscuity. As far as I’ve seen from sex-education, the idea is to arm adolescents with information and the means of protecting themselves if they choose to do what teenagers have been doing since time immemorial. I take issue with use of the word “kiddie”, since no-one has suggested giving anyone below High-School age, and half the problem is we’re trying to keep children child-like for longer than they’ve ever been “children” before.

  26. Pingback: Dodgy DoJ survey designed to trick Victorians into calling for harsher sentencing | An Onymous Lefty

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