Even though our prisons fail in their goals of deterrence and rehabilitation, there is one way they succeed: incapacitation. When criminals are in prison, they cannot commit crimes in the free world. They still commit crimes in prison.
Incapacitation now ranks as the primary justification for prison. Society has almost given up on rehabilitation, the original goal of the penitentiary. When Congress abolished parole in the federal criminal justice system, they found point-blank that rehabilitation efforts have largely failed.
Some studies show great value in temporarily preventing crime with incapacitation. One found that for each convict released due to prison overcrowding litigation, over a dozen crimes are committed, at a cost of above the average cost of keeping a prisoner for one year. Another found the cost of releasing a criminal to be over 10 times the cost of incarceration. Many inmates unless confined commit something like 200 crimes per year. One economist found four reasons for the marked decrease in U.S. crime, starting in about 1991: the rising prison population, more police, the receding crack cocaine epidemic and the legalization of abortion. One advantage of prison is that it gives young men and women time to mature. After lengthy prison sentences, older, more mature offenders are less likely to re-offend violently than when they were younger.
The incapacitation effect literally keeps crimes from occurring. The early release of prisoners, brought on by budgetary and financial difficulties, causes crime to increase, especially in the large urban areas to which criminals usually return. The revolving door of recidivism usually means that felons return to the same problematic urban environment when released. While logic and data will instruct authorities as to the least threatening prisoners to release, given current recidivism rates, the early release of multiple prisoners inevitably causes an increase in crime. While incarceration itself is harmful and may increase the propensity of a criminal to recidivate, that increased likelihood is small or inflexible compared to the huge decrease in crime brought about by the complete incapacitation of offenders while incarcerated.
Modern prisons do not rehabilitate or deter crime very well, but prisoners do not deserve to be in the free world, where they would commit many more crimes than they do in prison. We need to look at other methods of handling our massive problems. The benefits of prisons – punishment and incapacitation – can greatly increase in a way to benefit society. To do this, we must believe in work… hard work. To achieve maximum benefit for the law-abiding portions of society, prisoners must work productively while incarcerated, earning what they consume. Many laws that inhibit prison labor and industries must be repealed. To obtain more work out of inmates, we must get them out of their tiny cells, over those current legal barriers, and into a controlled, productive, private enterprise work environment.
Then they can start paying their debts to society. In the process of truly working many more prisoners, we will return the proper focus to helping law-abiding people. At the same time, we will help more prisoners change for the better. Work and crime are opposites.