The U.S. prison system’s foundation is based on the concept of offenders serving time as retribution for harm caused by their crime. The idea is that the punishment alone teaches the offender not to go back to a life of crime. Additionally, the prison system aims to reduce crime by incapacitating offenders since they cannot commit crime if they are behind bars. In the 1970’s, lawmakers implemented policy changes to the U.S. prison system, including mandatory minimum sentencing laws, habitual offender laws, and prison sentences non-reviewable by a parole board. These changes contributed to the prison system we see today where punishment and retribution, not rehabilitation, are the priority.
Proponents of focusing on rehabilitation argue that as a result of these policy changes, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In addition, the length of time served by prisoners doubled from 1988-2012. Research shows that this increase in prison sentence length has had no effect on preventing crime. The U.S. also has some of the highest recidivism rates in the world. Within three years of leaving prison, 68% of people are rearrested. Inmates placed in solitary confinement have even higher rates of recidivism compared to the general prison population. Reform proponents believe that the high recidivism is due to a system that relies heavily on punishment to reduce crime and that a system versus a system that helps offenders make changes to successfully reintegrate into society. This heavy use of punishment and retribution ignores the evidence that rehabilitation works, advocates argue.
Rehabilitation efforts in prison focus on the idea that a person becomes involved in crime due to a variety of factors and reoffending is preventable by providing services that address these factors. Critics of rehabilitation efforts claim they are soft on crime and make excuses for bad behavior. However, proponents argue that rehabilitation is critical for public safety because it helps to break the cycle of recidivism. For example, in San Francisco, 4 months of an intensive re-educational program reduced the reoffending rate among participants by 83%. The lower reincarceration rate brought about by the program translated to tax dollars savings of $30,000 a year per person. The prison system in Norway is another example of a successful rehabilitation program. Norway focuses on rehabilitation through restorative justice. Norway designed prisons to resemble normal life as much as possible with an emphasis on preparing prisoners for life on the outside. Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the world and an incarceration rate of just 75 per 100,000 compared to 707 per 100,000 in the U.S.
Would you like to see the U.S. make changes to the prison system to include more of a focus on rehabilitation? Or do you think it’s better to focus on incarceration?