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Why do we jail offenders?


About DJC

A prolific public speaker who also has a passion for asking those big life questions in a way that provokes a response - with a view to moving the debate, and even the community, forward.

Very often, the questions are more important than the answers. There is little doubt that a rapidly changing world calls for new ways of thinking.


Retribution is not, and should not, be the primary purpose of imprisonment.

I was at a function the other night and for some obscure reason, better known the others in the room, the discussion turned to the testing of cosmetics on animals. Without knowing enough to offer viable long-term alternatives, I joined the chorus of voices critical of such testing.

Is prison an ineffective deterrent? Please share your thoughts with us.

Is prison an ineffective deterrent? Please share your thoughts with us. Picture: iStock

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Just when I thought that was the end of the matter, one of the women expressed the view that instead of testing cosmetics and new drugs on animals, they should be tested on men in the prison system. Setting aside any gender considerations in her comment, I came to understand that she saw such an approach as adding to the deterrent that she believes prison, or the prison system, should provide.

I immediately felt uncomfortable. What a hideous suggestion.

Cruel and unusual punishment has never appealed to me and I have always questioned the value of deterrents. There is something morally bereft about cruel and unusual punishment. All of the research I have read suggests that punishment has a non-specific, indeterminant effect, and deterrents are not effective.

Punishment is often counter-productive. In the United States, the states that still execute killers also have the highest murder rates, suggesting that deterrents are less than effective.

While pondering these points for a moment or two, my mind quickly wandered on to a much bigger issue, and that is the purpose or purposes of putting offenders in jail. Why do we jail criminals, or at least, those convicted of a crime?

Victims and their relatives often view jail as retribution, even closure. But I suspect this is not the primary objective. I take the view that this outcome helps no one in the medium to longer term. The fact is, research demonstrates that while revenge provides satisfaction in the short term, only forgiveness provides long-term peace. Further to this, in many cases there is no penalty that will be seen by the victims or their family as adequate.

I understand that many people view jail as a punishment - and I am sure that it is. Further, if an individual commits a crime against the community, there is a strong argument in support of punishment.

That said, the effect is questionable and some punishments are so severe that they require an assumption that the offender is 100% responsible for their behaviour, which few people ever are. We are all victims of our upbringing and environment.

All of this aside, what is the real purpose of a jail sentence?

I see a hierarchy of purposes.

On an entirely rational level, the number one purpose must surely be to protect the community by reducing the likelihood of the individual reoffending. In the short term, this may involve putting that individual in jail for a period of time, on the basis that while they are incarcerated, they will find it a lot more difficult to commit a crime in the broader community. Certainly, while the individual is in jail, society is safe from the actions of that individual.

After a period of time, most individuals in jail are released. In order for society to be adequately protected after their release, it is useful that some of these individuals be monitored for a period of time and that all of them are sufficiently rehabilitated. They need to come out of jail less inclined to commit crimes that will threaten society.

It occurs to me that these are the highest order reasons for placing an individual in prison. They are certainly more important than deterrent or retribution.

Deterrent is a second-order purpose, in my view. Protecting the community is more important.

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