Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Purpose of the Penal System

There is a term out there that almost jars the mind. It is the "Prison Industry". That's right. Today (in fact, for years) we have an industry devoted to prisons. Various government entities are turning over (or building) prison facilities run by private organizations. They make a profit (as private organizations are supposed to do) by receiving payment from the government entities and, of course, controlling their costs. The thinking is that private industry is much more efficient than government industry and privatizing the prison systems will save the taxpayers money. Okay, fine. Whatever. I'm not questioning (approving or disapproving) the morality or wisdom of such a concept. My question is more at what their purpose would be. You see, any product on the market, from toys to prisons, has to have a purpose, a goal, a set of specifications to meet. You know. How do you determine if the private prison facility is a quality service? So ... what is the purpose statement of a prison? More broadly, what is the purpose of our penal system at all?

You'll likely find three distinct purposes for the penal system. First, there is rehabilitation. Second, there is protection. Third, there is punishment. That is, the concept is that prisons in particular exist to rehabilitate the criminal, protect society from the criminal, and punish the criminal. Now, I listed them in mostly random order. I think you'll find that most people don't actually hold to these three views, and they do that by changing their emphasis. We'll leave protection alone. Most people see that. And that one stands alone as something for society, while the other two are aimed at the criminal. So, is the purpose of prison rehabilitation or punishment? I think that, depending on your perspective, one will engulf the other.

One of today's most common views is that the purpose of the penal system is rehabilitation. In fact, we often call them "correctional institutions". The idea is to return these people to society as changed people, no longer criminals. To this view, the "punishment" aspect isn't so much punishment as incentive to not do it again. That is, if you make it unpleasant enough, maybe that will aid them in their rehabilitation. So, to this view, the purpose is to bring the criminal back to "normal" and return them healthy to society.

On the other hand, the other view sees the primary purpose of the penal system as punishment. They did something wrong. They have to pay. Now, once they get out again, it would be good if we didn't have them repeat the offense, so, of course, you'll want to rehabilitate them if you can, but the real purpose is punishment and the rehabilitation concept is just folded into the "protection" concept. They need to be punished for their crime, and if you can protect people from them repeating their criminal behavior by rehabilitating them, that would be good.

To determine which side you fall on, let's try a thought experiment. Suppose that modern science came up with a method whereby, in a thirty day procedure, a person would not repeat a particular crime. You know, some sort of genuine "rehabilitation". There would be no chance that they would come out after that 30 days and repeat the crime for which they went in. Would you 1) embrace that method and do away with extended sentences or 2) require that varying crimes include varying sentences? One is the rehabilitation side and the other is the punishment side.

I think that, for a large part, your choice of which of those two sides you take will be determined by an underlying premise. I think that if your basic premise is that people are fundamentally good, then your conclusion will be that we need to rehabilitate these fundamentally good people. You know. They're broken. Fix them. Criminals are maladjusted. They lack self-esteem and never learned the proper morality. They need work. Give them some means of better self-esteem, some job skills, some sense of moral values. We can rebuild them. On the other hand, if your view is that humans are inherently evil, then fixing them is literally an impossibility. You might try to correct those behaviors, but they will always be inherently evil. This side likes the term "criminal justice system" because it recognizes that crimes are acts of injustice and justice demands payment. Justice, you see, is "the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics." Thus, punishment is part of justice (ethics, fairness, equity); rehabilitation would be a side issue.

Of course, your view on these two points will largely affect your view on the quality of privatized prisons. We've gone a long way toward making prisoners comfortable. That's because the primary goal is not justice, but reform. Justice would want to make it uncomfortable; reform would want to make them feel better about themselves. If I am right about the premise of these two positions, I would also conclude that the prevalent view of the day is that people are basically good. Of course, that is neither rational nor biblical, but in this day and age neither of those are major concerns, are they?

5 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

I reckon I vote for both/and.

If there were a 30 day procedure whereby a rapist or murderer could be wholly reformed, justice would not be served by then releasing them and I would not favor releasing them at that point.

On the other hand, for practical, societal reasons, we'd do very well to strive for reform. If a fella has committed a robbery, he's cost society in many ways - the loss of the stolen goods, the feeling of security that has been taken away from that neighborhood, the loss of a productive citizen who is now in prison instead of working and paying taxes and otherwise contributing to society.

But we're not going to imprison a burglar for life. SO, when he gets out, I WANT that felon to be reformed, to have a chance to get a job and become a productive citizen. I WANT to see recidivism go down.

For "selfish" societal reasons aside for wanting any good for the burglar, I want to see reform. And then, of course, as a Christian, I'd also have compassion for the felon and want to see him reformed for his sake, as well.

So, I vote very much for both/and reform and punishment.

Stan said...

Well, while I set up three purposes (reform, protection, and punishment), my premise is that most people end up with just two. The "reform" crowd typically sees no need to punish criminals (an outdated notion) and favor rehabilitation both for the criminal's sake and for the protection of society. The "punishment" types typically see the penal system as a method of "balancing the books", so to speak. "You cost us with your crime; it's gonna cost you." Reform, to this group, is typically simply part of protecting society (much as you explained), not as the primary purpose of the penal system. It looks as if you are saying you fall in that second category.

Dan Trabue said...

Hey! We agree!

Dan said...

The entire premise of liberalism is built on the premise that man is fundamenatlly good; the welfare system, economic policy, gun laws, apeasment of those who want us dead, and yes, the judical system. The really weird thing is that the meaning of good doesn't stay the same because there is no basis for it. It seems that in this age, in order to know what "good" means on any given day you have to ask a devout democrat.

Marshall Art said...

I believe that prison is supposed to be primarily for punishment. I'm not concerned with rehabilitation until the sentenced is served and the convict is about to be released. If by that time he hasn't repented and sworn off his life of crime simply by having lost his freedom and possibly working hard while at it, then that con is looking forward to more time inside.


Dan T makes a mistake by considering his time as "the loss of a productive citizen who is now in prison instead of working and paying taxes and otherwise contributing to society." If he was any of those things, he wouldn't be in prison.

I know Dan likes to think that it's worth it to society to reform cons, to give them the opportunity to learn a trade that they never took before they committed the crime for which they got busted. But I don't like the idea of giving these people a second education on society's dime. If such education results in a more acceptable recidivism rate, then that second education should be garnished from future wages, just as any other law-abiding citizen pays for retraining in hard times, or just for his paying for higher education.

Dan thinks this will not work, or rather, he believes that since there are no stats to support this idea that it will not work or shouldn't be implemented. It's silly. If the con is willing to study and learn, paying money for it later is the easy part.

But worse, to rehabilitate a convict is to add to his debt to society and somehow, the reformers think we should pay this cost.

But I don't think of cost in that manner. I'll pay more to do the right thing than to do the easier thing. The right thing here is to make the convict pay for his crimes. His crime is the debt for which he owes us. A second education is a reward for his criminal act. It is injustice toward the law abiding society, a legitimate social injustice in fact, to reward a criminal with a free education. It's worth it to me to pay to put him back in jail if he gets out and sins again rather than to give him a prize for doing it the first time. In the meantime, law-abiding people are struggling with the same temptations, resisting and paying this bum's way. Only a lib would see that as a good thing.