Hugo Martins thinks prisons should be more than just temporary housing for criminals.
Today’s prisons have three essential purposes:
- Isolating criminals from society in order to prevent them from committing crimes.
- Punishing criminals for the crimes that they have already committed.
- Rehabilitating criminals in order to release them back to society so they won’t commit the same crimes—or any crime—again.
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world (About 700 hundred prisoners per 100,000 citizens) and accordingly is the best country in which to study the current state of prisons. Currently, it has close to 2.5 million adults incarcerated and 90,000 adolescents in juvenile detention. But I want to focus on the third essential purpose.
Our government spends millions of dollars every year trying to create new services of education and rehabilitation for criminals in order to better prepare them for re-integration in society, but is that having any effect at all?
As we know, when inmates are released, life isn’t easy. There’s a permanent black mark on their records, often deterring potential employers from hiring. The stigma of “ex-con” is hard to shake.
Two studies give an interesting perspective on recidivism. The first was the most recent study performed by the Bureau of Justice in 2002, studying a population of prisoners released in 1994. The second was a study performed in 2011 by The Pew Center of States, studying two populations of prisoners: one released in 1999 and in 2004.
The study performed on the 275,000 prisoners released in 1994 showed that 51.8% of the prisoners were back in prison within 3 years. The highest re-arrest rates were among robbers (70.2%) and burglars (74.0%), which tends to show that, most times, recidivists are people who have committed less severe crimes (if one can even say such thing).
More violent crimes like homicide, rape or, sexual assault had the lowest re-arrest rates. Only 1.2% of homicides have been arrested for another homicide, and only 2.5% of rapists have been arrested for another rape. Violent criminals are going back to the streets less violent, it seems.
In the other study, performed more than a decade later, the recidivism rates for prisoners released in 1999 was 45.4%, and the recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2004 was 43.3%.
The recidivism rate decreased 8.5% in ten years (according to the mixed data of both studies), but in the last five years it only dropped 2.1%. The recidivism rates seem steady.
Another important statistic to look at is the amount of the sentence served before release and if the prisoners had already been convicted prior to that sentence. What we could see from the first study is that 81.4% of the prisoners had already been convicted once, and they only served 35.2% of the sentence, most times.
How is that possible? We are releasing criminals back on the streets with only 35% of their sentence served? More time in prison doesn’t necessarily mean less recidivism, but if we are punishing criminals for something they did, shouldn’t we at least make them serve all their punishment?
While that’s definitely a possibility, it probably has something to do with what’s going on inside. If so many prisoners are going in, serving part of their sentence, and then coming out and just doing it all again, is rehabilitation really working? Remember that third essential purpose. Prisons aren’t just supposed to be temporary housing for prisoners.
Whatever it is, prisons, at least in regard to crimes like burglary and robbery, aren’t serving an essential purpose. Could it be because prisoners aren’t spending enough time behind bars? Sure, but it really shows that, for one reason or another, prisons aren’t rehabilitating the people inside. And if that’s not happening, then what’s the point?
—Photo Rennett Stowe/Flickr