Some thoughts on what works

Here are some abstracts from the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice website.[1]

1. On Deterrence:


First, research shows clearly: If criminals think there’s only a slim chance they will be caught, the severity of punishment — even draconian punishment — is an ineffective deterrent to crime. Second, prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences are unlikely to deter future crime. Third, the police deter crime when they do things that strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught. Fourth, laws and policies designed to deter crime are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes. Fifth, according to the National Academy of Sciences, “Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates.”

2. On Recidivism

Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. One study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005.[1] The researchers found that:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.

3. On Desistance:

An important connection exists between the concept of recidivism and the growing body of research on criminal desistance. Desistance refers to the process by which a person arrives at a permanent state of nonoffending. In effect, an offender released from prison will either recidivate or desist. To the extent that interventions and sanctions affect the process of desistance, the research overlaps.

[An NIJ research team] theorizes that although offender services and programs may have a direct effect on desistance, individuals must decide independently to transform themselves into ex-offenders. Programs and services may facilitate transformation, just as individual transformation — or the lack thereof — may moderate the effects of re-entry assistance


So, to further précis the above précis [precises?]:

The prospect of increased sanctions [tough on crime measures] do not deter criminals and the degree/severity of supervision both inside and out do not, per se, deter further crimes after release. Although programs under sentences can affect offenders, the real tipping point occurs when they independently decide to lead a non-criminal life.

What we need to do then is to assist the offender in reaching that independent life decision. Simply applying programs is potentially helpful but not determinative. Establishing the conditions where an offender decides, in their heart of hearts, not to continue to be an offender is the key.

What can we take from this?

Well, perhaps:

a. Don’t rely on minimum and harsh sentencing to achieve deterrence or to prevent recidivism.

The harshness of the prison environment may represent an experience to be avoided by some released inmates, but there is no evidence that the relative harshness of sentences for the same crime will increase this “lesson learned” possibility. Otherwise, the prospect of harsh sentences does not prevent crime and  harsh sentences, to the extent that they produce over-crowding and decreased access to programming, may well lead to less desistance and more recidivism.

b. Make available programs that will clarify the better option of law-abiding life and the hope of achieving  one.

When you think about it, it makes sense that the programs that best impart sensible, realistic decision-making (e.g. cognitive development), won’t really work if the inmate, faced, all alone, with the obstacles of ex-con life, does not want to make the change. going to Bubba for help is the preferred option.

What is needed, it would seem, is the real prospect of the inmate’s success in implementing acquired skills and knowledge. Ergo, supervision and mentoring aimed at assisting the offender

  • to actually find and maintain lawful employment,
  • to acquire pro-social relationships and
  • to otherwise understand and  accept the mind set of Joe/Josephine  normal working stiff ( for older offenders, Joe/Josephine normal pensioner)

Patently, a regime of constant punishment won’t work. Neither will going through the motions of learning. The community needs to identify skills that will be useful on release and facilitate the offender’s acquisition of these, with on-going support and mentoring.

c. A Relationship of Trust

No sane person is going to achieve a Eureka moment about joining the “other side” if they have no confidence in the good will and honesty of those who control the “other side”.

Harsh legislation and policies which make offenders suffer more, and little else, and/or which snatch away the tiny rewards and confidence-builders that can be obtained under sentence, can hardly be expected to attract trust in the purported goals of the keepers.

Government measures that lessen the already paltry means that offenders possess to restore broken families and set up reasonable release conditions, will hardly inspire hope for viable community life.

Yet another way of showing the negative effects of “tough on crime” agendas.

Just a few thoughts on a Prisoners Justice Day afternoon.

Food for further thought, I hope.

[1] list


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