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Marc My Words 17 June 2005 - Does Prison Work?

Marc My Words 17 June 2005
Does Prison Work?

As I talk with various groups around the country about law and order issues, one question pops up all the time: Why isn't prison a place of punishment? It seems to many that being provided with three square meals a day, TV, a gym that schools would envy, no waiting lists for dental and medical treatment , and educational opportunities without the debilitating loan scheme reserved for the law-abiding student - is enough to make cynics of us all!

Ultimately the debate of whether the prison experience is a punishment or not - and whether it should be - must be seen in light of the purpose and guiding principles of the New Zealand corrections system. A defining statement can be found in 'Section 6: Purpose of Corrections System' and 'Section 7: Principles Guiding Corrections System' (Corrections Act 2004). What we find is that the word 'punishment' is not mentioned at all!

Instead we discover that 'the purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society'. But the means by which that objective is supposedly delivered includes the 'safe, secure and humane' administration of the sentences; that they are operated in accordance with 'the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners'; that it assists in 'the rehabilitation of offenders'; and 'provides information to the Parole Board.'

There is not one word about exacting a penalty for the commission of a crime. Nothing at all about the price that should be paid for being found guilty of violating our laws!

The only nod to the interests of victims comes in section 7(1)(b) which states that 'victims' interests must be considered 'in decisions related to the management of persons under control and supervision'. The irony is that this Labour Government has passed legislation that allows inmates to receive compensation (against the wishes of victims who argued passionately at a select committee hearing) and rescinded the private management contract of the best run prison in New Zealand. Victims - along with other law-abiding Kiwis - will now be forced to pay even more to keep those that offend against them in the style they have been accustomed to (to the tune of $27,000 per inmate per year more)!

But why the silence on punishment? Prior to the Corrections Act 2004 the guiding principle can be found in a Justice Ministry publication (1988) 'Prisons in Charge' which stated that the deprivation of liberty was the punishment. The corollary was that prisons were not to impose any further punishment. A further principle asserted that prison inmates - irrespective of the nature of their offences - retained all the rights and privileges of a member of society!

Put simply, this was not a directive against the brutal treatment of criminals but a pro-active affirmation of treatment as if they were law-abiding. Sadly these principles are still being advanced by well-meaning behavioural apologists whose concept of the nature of crime is derived from a bunch of dusty books as connected to reality as crop circles! If a $125 per hour someone in a white coat was to write a piece called, 'Criminals: The real Misunderstood Victims', under the pretence of research, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

We have come to the point where we can no longer expect that prison is the punishment but is simply the venue for punishment. It takes little imagination to realise that imprisonment is the logical consequence to choosing to break law and being caught. It is as absurd to refer to being in prison as a punishment any more than gaining weight is a punishment as a result of eating calorie-laden food. One is simply the consequence of the other.

The conditions of prison and the duration of imprisonment is where punishment can be applied. And works!

The 1990s saw the United States experience significant drops in most categories of crime. The assault rate in the US dropped by more than one-third, burglary rates more than halved, robberies fell by two-thirds and car thefts fell by three-quarters. Why?

Crime, like any other human activity, involves a rational calculation by an individual of the likely costs and benefits, which are offset against the possible risks. An increase in the probability of conviction or punishment (if convicted) was found to proportionately and substantially decrease the number of offences committed.

Chicago economist Gary Becker in Saunders and Billante (2002-03), 'Does prison work?,' suggests that a person commits an offence when the expected benefit exceeds the risk, time and other resources in the pursuit of other activities with the same end. This suggests that criminal behaviour could be reduced by simply changing the probabilities inherent in the cost-benefit analysis. This can be done by raising the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended, increasing the number of police and their resources, intensifying the severity of punishment as well as the certainty of being caught, and ensuring that punishment is proportionate to the crime.

Many studies have found that the probability of detection and punishment exert a significant influence on criminal behaviour.

"There is now plenty of evidence suggesting that punitive policies do indeed reduce or help constrain the growth in crime. In many instances they provide the only viable short-term option for dealing with it." Weatherburn

Charles Murray, in his essay called 'Does prison work?', has described how the number of crimes reported to Police in England and Wales rose over several decades, while the probability of apprehension and incarceration declined. Even though the total number of prisoners increased as reported crime increased, there was a reduced likelihood of apprehension for a serious offence.

In contrast to the English and Welsh experience, the United States had a rising rate of apprehension and imprisonment per recorded crime. The decline in crime rates across the US, which began in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s, was largely the result of a policy to increase the use of imprisonment as crime escalated. Murray's argument was simple: 'the falling use of imprisonment is to blame for rising crime'.

The conclusions Murray drew were that when crime is low and stable it is important to maintain the rate of imprisonment per crime, because imprisonment can halt a rising crime rate and eventually turn it around. The US experience showed that crime rates rose when the rate of imprisonment per crime declined, and fell when the rate of imprisonment per crime began to rise.

There are some things prison clearly can't do. It cannot restore family life or socialise a new generation of young males to civilised behaviour, nor is it capable of making the unemployable employable. Prison programmes have been spectacularly unsuccessful in the rehabilitation of habitual offenders.
Despite the ideas that liberal ideologues choose to promulgate there is now a good amount of credible evidence that the risk of apprehension may be as strong a deterrent as the severity of the punishment.

We should learn from this and start putting in place initiatives that reduce the number of victims. For their human rights!


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