The Purpose of Prison and the Measuring Stick of Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis

In a perfect world, prison generally has three purposes: prison acts as a deterrent to instant and repeat crime, prison punishes the wrongdoer, and prison ideally treats or rehabilitates the wrongdoer so they no longer engage in crime.  This article will address these three purposes of prisons, and show how the instance of recidivism can act as a measuring stick to the success or failure of America’s prison system.

The Three Goals of America’s Prison System

While law enforcement identifies crime and the culprits, prisons are America’s primary tool for addressing crime and other violations of the social contract.  Prisons are where criminals are locked up and kept away from society, through the vehicle of a sentence that is ideally designed to match their crime — although, in reality, it rarely does.

As previously mentioned, the three primary purposes of prisons are being a deterrent to crime, a punishment to the criminal, and to rehabilitate the criminal.  Let’s take each in turn:

  • Deterrent: One of the most basic purposes of prisons are to act as a deterrent to crime.  Few people want to spend any amount of time in a prison, so the theory is that men and women will not commit crimes due to the harsh conditions of confinement in one of America’s prisons.  The same goes for repeat crime.  While there are factors regarding upbringing, need, and culture that still push people into crime, prisons are at least a moderately successful deterrent, albeit, this does not span all types of crime.  For example, many who commit murder do so in a fit of rage or passion.  As such, a possible term of imprisonment would not act as a deterrent to them.

  • Punishment: Prisons are also designed to be a punishment.  While there is some debate over if the term of imprisonment itself is the punishment, or if the conditions therein should add to the punishment, prisons fulfill punishment goals while protecting society from the wrongdoer.  Prisons are places where those that have committed crimes are punished for said crimes with a sentence that is believed to be reasonable given the crime committed.  While there are plenty of problems with the fairness and uniformity of sentences, among a plethora of other criminal justice components, prisons do represent a moderately successful punishment, albeit one which in modern times is being understood to cause perhaps more social and personal problems than it resolves.

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