The Purpose of Prison and the Measuring Stick of Recidivism

The Purpose of Prison and the Measuring Stick of Recidivism

In a perfect world, prison generally has three purposes: prison acts as a deterrent to instant and repeat crimes, 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 is to act as a deterrent to crime.  Few people want to spend any amount of time in 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 crimes.  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.
  • Rehabilitation: The final purpose of prison is rehabilitation.  While reasonable people may argue over the length of sentences or the fairness of prisons as a punishment, the one component that no one argues about is that once someone leaves any type of prison facility, the expectation is that they should be rehabilitated — they should be leaving prison with the desire to never return either to prison or to a life of crime, and, they should ultimately be leading a better, more productive, law-abiding life from that point on.  Sadly, this final purpose of prison seems to be lost in the mix.  Often prisoners are not provided with any sort of treatment or rehabilitative programming for their social ailments which led them to engage in crime in the first place.

While American prisons do a terrific job of punishment and a fairly good job of being a deterrent, they are awful at being centers of rehabilitation.  They plainly fall flat on this goal or ideal of rehabilitation.  This much is evident from the fact that as much as 40 to 65 percent of released prisoners are re-incarcerated within three years of release.  Here enters our measuring stick of recidivism.

Recidivism: The Measuring Stick of Prisons’ Effectiveness

Recidivism can be used as a measuring stick to see how effectively America’s criminal justice system works.  Plainly, the lower the recidivism rate, the better it is working, and the higher the recidivism rate, the worse it is working.  After all, why would we lock people up, punish them, and purport to treat them if not to change them?  To not expect a return on our $52 to $60 billion annual expense on American prisons would just be foolhardy.  The proof is in the pudding.

In the United States, most released prisoners return to a life of crime.  With nearly two-thirds of former prisoners reentering America’s criminal justice system, it’s clear that American prisons are not fixing wrongdoers; they either have no impact or are actually damaging them further.  This shows that our return on investment is abysmal for the billions spent on American corrections.  The system appears to work around 33 percent of the time, using this generalized two-thirds recidivism example.  Note that other studies have placed the national recidivism rate at much higher levels.

Treating Prisoners, Not Just Punishing Them

While many blame the former prisoners themselves for lapsing back into a life of crime, there is a considerable amount of evidence that it is the lack of opportunities available within the prison systems that make it harder for those released to maintain a law-abiding lifestyle upon release, the primary two being mental health treatment and prison education programming.

It’s not that hard to understand: by locking up damaged people, then subjecting them to a further damaging prison environment and releasing them, they come out further damaged and even more apt to engage in a criminal lifestyle than when they were locked up in the first place.  And until the American public and legislators understand this, America’s criminal justice system will just continue to devolve, with the end result of perpetually increasing recidivism rates and more dangerous former prisoners being released onto our neighborhood streets.


Blom Cooper, L. (2008). The penalty of imprisonment: Why 60 percent of the prison population should not be there. London: Continuum

Hofer, P. (2004). Fifteen years of guidelines sentencing: An assessment of how well the federal criminal justice system is achieving the goals of sentencing reform. Washington, DC: United States Sentencing Commission.

MacKenzie, D.L. (2006). What Works in Corrections: Reducing Recidivism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pew Center on the States. (2011). State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts.

Zambie, E., & Quinsey, V.L. (1997). The Criminal Recidivism Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.