Prisons and Punishment

The cost of imprisoning an offender is high - Prisons and Punishment introduction. With western regions like the US, UK and Australia experiencing consistent rising imprisonment rates and the limited availability of public resources, efficient use of prison and criminal justice resources is imperative (Marsh, Fox & Hedderman, 2009). A cost benefit analysis (CBA) of prisons essentially measures how effective and efficient certain criminal justice interventions are. Marsh et al. (2009, p.

146) states that this measurement is done by assessing an intervention where the aim is for the benefit of a certain intervention to outweigh the initial dollar cost put into it. CBA are favoured by economists and criminologists as multiple interventions can create duplicate results. This is why the cost benefit analysis is an effective tool as it can determine what the cheaper option is (which produces the same outcome). Sentencing of criminals aims to create three main benefits to both offenders and society. They include rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation effects.

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Of course, with different categories and variables in offenders, there are a range of factors that influence how cost effective specific punishments can be and whether certain punishments can produce the three sentencing effects previously mentioned. From here, it is appropriate to ask ourselves whether imprisonment is worth the cost and whether prisons produce the three sentencing benefits. For the purposes of this essay, the cost and benefits of prison sentences will be compared with community based sentences.

The incapacitation effects of prisons will be discussed along with a brief overview of deterrent and rehabilitation effects of prison and community based sentences. It’s also appropriate to discover whether community sentences provide less or more value for money to certain types of offenders compared to incarceration. From having analysed such interventions and their outcomes, it’s also appropriate to make recommendations of how correctional institutions should allocate their scarce resources.

In general, criminal sentencing options aim to provide positive rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation effects (Marsh et al. , 2009). This is why imprisonment is a popular option for sentencing as it can potentially result in these benefits. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case as there are many examples where incapacitation doesn’t effect or even increases the chances of recidivism. Eg – A study was conducted on the cost benefits for juvenile offenders. (Marsh et al. , 2009) identified that whether juveniles received

intensive probation or a custodial sentence, there were no changes to the rate of offending. Intensive probation costing nearly $19,000 less than imprisonment, it was therefore concluded that community based sentences (more specifically probation and youth justice conferences) were much more cost effective for juvenile offenders compared to incarceration. Calculating incapacitation benefits also poses as a great challenge for researchers as it’s difficult to estimate how much dollars worth of crime didn’t occur due to incapacitation alone (Gray, 1986).

This requires researchers to discover the frequency and severity of crime committed by an offender with or without an arrest (Gray, 1986). For example, Marsh et al (2009) discovered that high risk offenders that commit more than 12 crimes per year, every $1. 00 spent on prison produced approximately $2. 80 of avoided offending within these criminals. But for overall offenders, the benefit was significantly lower at a mere $0. 36. White & Perrone (2010, p. 501) argued that cost benefit evidence shows that prison is a more efficient option for more serious offenders whereas its very ineffective for less serious offenders.

Therefore, it can be justified that the incapacitation effect from imprisonment would be most cost effective for high risk and high rate offenders as incapacitation ceases the would be reoffending costs. It wouldn’t be very cost effective to imprison a first time, low risk offender as imprisonment costs are far greater than community correctional programs. Additionally, Gray (1986, p. 23) discovered that criminals who received probation over imprisonment, recidivism was much lower. This was extracted from numerous rehabilitative studies on lower risk offenders. According to White (2004, p.

47), Australia’s average expenditure for secure detention costs approximately $149 per day (per person) compared to community correction costs which at most costs just under $12 per day. It must also be noted that prisons produce much psychological pain for incarcerated offenders (especially low risk offenders) where they experience much difficulty in recovering from the hardships they experience (White & Perrone 2010, p. 501). The trauma of imprisonment is said to create unnecessary social and economic costs which can be avoided by alternative sentencing options (White 2004, p.

49). So instead of prison incapacitation for the more low risk offenders, community corrections like probation or community payback would be more appropriate, not to mention much more cost efficient. Contrary to imprisonment sentences, community corrections are considered a major contributor in reducing the rate of recidivism (White 2004). This is because community corrections are more focused on restorative justice in aim of reintegrating and re-socializing the offender back into society.

Community based sentences recognizes offenders’ vulnerabilities and special needs which focus on rehabilitating the offender (White & Perrone 2010, p. 502). Community sentences are seen to possess high potential to improve an offender’s behaviour as programs don’t entirely exclude the offender from society and provides a sense of acceptance and inclusion. White (2004, p. 49) found that supervised release in the UK and Canada yielded a positive reduction in future offending and the successful completions of parole; resulting in a lot of avoided cost from potential recidivism.

So consequently, community corrections are seen as most appropriate in creating positive rehabilitative effects whereas incarceration is more drawn towards incapacitation and punishment. While community corrections are far less expensive than imprisonment, the issue is with how much money is prioritised for specific programs, the training for specialists and the number of staff. According to (White 2004), resources dedicated to community sentencing and corrections are very limited. “We need to spend more on programs to spend less on prisons” (White, 2004, p.

42). (Ritchie 2012, p. 12) argues that prison incarceration can also fail to deter prisoners from reoffending. This is partially due to the ‘labelling effect’ which stigmatises prisoners. This creates disadvantages to the offender’s social life and their opportunities in life (such as employment). ‘Labelling’ reinforces criminal identity and deteriorates many social connections from the offender (Ritchie 2012). This can potentially result in nonconformity to society’s expectations and reduced motivation to obey the law; further unnecessary social costs.

(Ritchie, D 2011, p. 23) also argues that factors such as increased severity of penalties for crime don’t produce higher deterrent effects within prisoners as most crimes are committed without the thought of long term consequences. (Ritchie 2011, p. 23) further argues that prison is considered to be a learning environment for crime. It removes social connections which would normally discourage such deviant behaviour but instead, prisoners live in an atmosphere that encourages criminal tendencies, further increasing the chances of nonconformity and recidivism.

It’s also evident that the threat of imprisonment and increased severity of punishment doesn’t affect the choices of criminals who posses drug, alcohol and psychological compulsions (Ritchie 2011, p. 23). In cases such as these, previously mentioned rehabilitative community sentences would be deemed much more cost effective as there are drug/alcohol programs and the issue of community level rehabilitation programs. Imprisonment wouldn’t be an appropriate response as these individuals require special treatment (Ritchie, 2011).

Marsh (2009, p. 149) identified that residential drug treatment and electronic surveillance doesn’t only cost much less than incarceration, it is more effective at reducing future offending as opposed to prison sentences. In conclusion, the cost benefit analysis (CBA) is used to primarily measure the costs and benefits of specific criminal interventions. The aim of the analysis is to decide on which type of intervention would create the most cost effective benefits which outweighs the initial cost of running the intervention.

The CBA captures how successful the incapacitation, deterrent and rehabilitation effects of prisons and alternatives to prison sentences are. It was discovered that incarceration is generally weak at reducing recidivism and deterrence to overall offenders as prison can create psychological damage and promotes criminal tendencies. However, there is evidence to suggest that incapacitation is far more beneficial and cost effective for more ‘hardcore’ and consistent offenders as their removal from society avoids high reoffending costs.

It was also concluded that incapacitation isn’t a cost effective intervention for more low risk, young and drug addicted offenders. It is more cost effective to apply community based rehabilitation sentences such as probation, drug programs/tests, electronic monitoring and community payback for these types of offenders. So it can be justified that more resources should be dedicated to community based sentences and the criminal justice system should lean towards a more rehabilitative and restorative method to deal with such offenders instead of a more punishing approach.

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