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Penitence, Punishment, Prevention, and the Purpose of Prisons 1

Why do we lock people up?

By Will Offensicht  |  July 6, 2011

We received an interesting comment after we wrote about Chinese prison guards forcing inmates to play online games after their quota of manual labor had been achieved:

Are you proposing the horrific prisons in the US should do this [force inmates to play online games to earn salable game points]. Are you not aware that guards in our prisons are forcing women to have sex with them in exchange for a bar of soap and a towel...

The comment was sent to us instead of being posted on the article, but we believed that others should see it.  The phrase "horrific prisons" goes to the heart of the matter - what are prisons for, anyway?

There are three basic reasons why societies incur the cost of running prisons, but let's first consider the purpose of the justice system.

Do What You Promised

America has two kind of law: civil law and criminal law.  Civil law is concerned with money - you can be sued if you don't fulfill your agreements and the court system can force you to pay.

Enforcement is needed for businesses to have confidence that they'll get paid.  Amazon sells books to people they don't know because the credit card companies will pay if the customer doesn't.  Countries where the only way to collect a debt is to beat up the debtor have trouble growing economically.

Commercial disputes don't end with anyone behind bars, and for those that do, it's because some criminal act was committed - fraud, say, or embezzlement of some kind as part of the commercial dispute.  In these cases, the prison sentence doesn't come as a civil punishment, but from a separate criminal trial conducted by The State vs the criminal.

Why is it that only The State can bring a criminal prosecution against a wrongdoer, and not ordinarily a private party?  Because criminal acts, as distinct from civil torts, are not just wrongs against one person, they are an assault against everyone.  Thus, the government, which in theory represents everyone's common interests, must deal with the matter.

Don't Do That

Criminal law is based on the simple concept that certain actions cannot be tolerated.  Even the most primitive tribes have laws - thou shalt not murder other members of the tribe, thou shalt not steal from thy neighbor.  Everyone knows that if people kill each other or take each other's stuff, the tribe doesn't function well.  The pygmies in New Guinea have never heard of Thomas Hobbes, but they understand that "the war of all against all" is not where they want to be.

Our criminal justice system, which includes courts, police, and prisons, is based on society saying "Don't do that!"  Cops and churches are in essentially the same business.  Churches say that if you don't straighten up and live right, God will send you to hell.  Cops say that if you don't straighten up and live right, the judge will send you to jail.  Either way, the goal is to persuade you to stop doing what society doesn't approve and to do things society appreciates.

As a practical matter, no society can hire enough cops to follow people around and make sure they never do bad.

Even if a total surveillance state were possible, who would make sure the cops do right?  Who watches the watchers?

One way or another, society has to convince each individual not to do what society can't tolerate and to do what society wants, even when nobody is looking.

The Seminal Question

Putting aside the process of deciding what society won't tolerate - passing laws is another topic - the fundamental question in any enforcement mechanism is, "What do we do with people who break the law?"  This obviously depends on which law was broken.  We assess fines for speeding rather than putting leadfoots in jail, for example.

Let's ignore trivial offenses at the low end and extreme crimes like murder at the high end, and consider what to do with criminals who engage in burglary or armed robbery.  These crimes aren't deserving of death, but we can't just have such people running around either.

How do we stop them from doing it?  Such folks are sent to prison.  There are three possible goals for imprisonment:

Of the three goals, penitence is the most desirable but by far the most difficult.  The faster an inmate can be persuaded to voluntarily change his behavior the better, but we aren't very good at that so we have to settle for prevention by any means possible.

Barbed wire, private security forces, alarm systems, and motion cameras are different means of prevention.  Unfortunately, the most effective method of crime prevention seems to be jail.  People who're locked up commit few crimes, and almost none against people who aren't also in prison.  The United States locks up a higher fraction of its population than any other country.

Some penologists claim that our modern wave of mass imprisonment is responsible for the fact that our crime rate has diminished in recent years, others beg to differ.  According to Jack Gibbs' "deterrence theory," the greater the speed, certainly, and severity of punishment, the fewer crimes will be committed.  Our justice system has become so slow and so ponderous that punishment is often deferred until long after the crime if it happens at all.  A friend who works in a prison told me that one of his professional development seminars had stated that fewer than 1% of the crimes in his state resulted in incarceration.  If offenders are jailed only once per hundred crimes, they can be forgiven for assuming that getting away with crime is normal and that any punishment at all is somehow unfair.

"Prevention" includes anything that keep potential offenders from breaking the law.  On that basis, some argue that violent video games, although they have been linked with increased aggression, actually reduce crime because they give potential offenders something else to do.  Playing games isn't constructive, but keeping gamers off the street reduces crime

In the next article in this series, we'll look at these three goals and how we've tried, and mostly failed, to accomplish them over the years.