One of the UK’s leading newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, recently published an article featuring scathing criticism of the country’s inadequate rate of incarceration for “sex attackers, violent criminals and burglars”. Like many groups or people who abhor the perceived liberalization or relaxation of the justice system, the Telegraph went on to identify this as a failure of the government to address so-called “soft” sentencing for the worst categories of offenders. The reality of what these numbers reflect may be quite different, however. Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies provided a sound rebuttal to the alarmist tone of the Telegraph article, suggesting that the numbers presented do not tell the whole story, both in terms the reason for sentencing discrepancies (e.g., was the crime committed one that actually involved violence or was this offender otherwise a threat to public safety?) and the overall rate of crime.
What lies at the heart of this debate though is an intrinsic dispute over the importance and rationale behind incarceration, especially when it comes to non-violent offenders. Some proponents of a more “tough on crime” stance, like the Telegraph, have targeted the use of community sentencing, one of the alternative sentencing mechanisms utilized in the UK, as placing members of the public in danger of exposure to criminals. However, there is a statistical argument that community sentencing actually reduces crime by cutting rates of re-offence.
It may remain unpalatable to some that those convicted of a criminal offence do not automatically spend time behind bars; however, if diversion tactics are shown to positively affect the rates of recidivism, perhaps an overhaul of the current system – alongside the mentality of being “tough of crime” – is warranted.
The application of habitual offender laws and other mandatory sentencing regimes such as the so-called “three strikes laws” in the United States has resulted in many offenders serving life sentences for non-violent crimes. In 2012 in Louisiana alone there were approximately 242 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for “non-violent drug and property crimes”. Even casting aside the social effects of LWOP sentences for non-violent offenders, the financial costs are staggering.
In the UK, the sentencing and incarceration of former cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce provided substantial media sensationalism; Ms Pryce served two months of an eight month sentence for perverting the course of justice over an unlawful speeding point exchange and has since provided scathing, though arguably self-serving, criticism of the current prison system. Indeed the actual imprisonment of white-collar criminals with ties to national politics is rare and fascinating, and presents a sense of egalitarianism from a typically-classist justice system. However, it is wholly rational to question if this crime is one which warranted actual jail time. For an individual without the means of Mr Huhne or Ms Pryce, two months could have resulted in the loss of a job, loss of accommodation, or alienation from family that could set them on the course to re-offence.
This all leads us to question the very function of prison. Prisons have, over the centuries that they have been used, served a variety of purposes – incapacitation, revenge, deterrence, political subjugation, rehabilitation. Regimes and practices have been tested and everything down to prison architecture has been at some point in time scrutinized. In order to manifest a justice system that serves the over-arching goals of a society – arguably now in Western countries at least to reduce overall crime rates wholesale – states must then look at what best achieves these objectives. It may be easier to assume that temporary incapacitation through incarceration effectively deters an individual from the compulsion of criminality, but this requires that the offender approaches crime as a rational choice which is a highly-contested idea given the number of academic theories on deviancy.
This obviously remains a polemic debate that cannot be solved immediately or in a way that satisfies each political or academic perspective on crime reduction. Of course, the crimes of chronic offenders must be addressed in a meaningful and substantive way and the incapacitation of individuals who pose a serious threat to public safety is a reasonable action on the part of the government. However, the use of diversion programs and alternative sentencing schemes – shown in their limited application to be effective – will actually help meet that objective of a safer society sooner and with less cost (both financial and not) to all.