Professor Malcolm Davies
The Institute for the Study of Civil Society
Institutionalised punishment is central to a civilised society...
The answer to this question depends on what you regard as the purpose or purposes of imprisonment.
Most commentators look at the impact of prisons on criminals and their future behaviour.
There are other audiences with an equal stake in prisons and their use: the public-at-large, victims and potential victims.
Prisons can work for the following sentencing reasons:
Because prison sentences are regarded by the bulk of the public, and by the judges and magistrates who make the sentencing decision, as just deserts for a wrong done.
Imprisonment is our most serious form of punishment, but it is not our only one, and it is the one least used when compared with fines, community penalties and discharges.
The criminal has done wrong in that they have been convicted of a sufficiently serious crime such that the offence cannot be ignored and is considered worthy of a serious punishment such as incarceration...
Because they underline society's commitment to defining rules about the appropriateness of certain types of behaviour and censuring others as unacceptable.
We reassure the law abiding that the law is being enforced...
Certain dangerous and sometimes persistent offenders need to be locked up to protect the public.
A survey of offenders admitted to prison in 2000 showed that the average offender admitted to committing 140 offences in the year before they were caught, and for offenders with drug problems the figure was 257.
Thus, on average, for each 1,000 offenders imprisoned for a year, 140,000 fewer offences would be committed...
For the time being, prisons remain over-stretched...
This is based on the view that prisons deter some crimes from happening because of the fear of punishment.
One study, in explaining the drop in crime in the USA and rise in the UK of six offences, found that in England and Wales in the early 1990s, criminals faced a lower risk of conviction and punishment compared with the USA.
Between 1981 and 1995 an offender's risk of being caught, convicted and imprisoned increased in the United States for the six crimes they compared but fell for all crimes in England and Wales except for murder.
The argument that prisons are not very good at rehabilitating offenders is generally true in that over half will re-offend within a two-year period after completing their sentence.
But the data shows there is not much difference from the re-offending rates for those given community penalties.
No quick fix
There is no easy formula for rehabilitating criminals; changing the future behaviour of existing criminals is as difficult as changing our own behaviour to comply with a New Year's Resolution. It can happen but often it does not.
This doesn't mean you should not try.
Finally, if you ignore public concerns and insist on imposing an elite-inspired change in the sentencing tariff of punishment, which does not concur with the judgments of the general public, you risk alienating the public and lowering public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole.
You then risk people turning to their own ways of resolving conflicts resulting from a crime.
Institutionalised punishment is central to a civilised society; in a democracy the appropriateness of punishments given by the courts should help maintain the public's confidence and reassure them that the rules protected by the law are met with suitable punishments when breached.
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