The Howard League for Penal Reform has published a pamphlet revisiting the much argued debate over the relative merits of prison and community sentences.
The pamphlet questions whether prison works, and if so, whether this is through deterrence (either ‘individual deterrence’ of prisoners or ‘general deterrence’ of the population as a whole) or simply through incapacitation, keeping people who offend locked up out of circulation.
Research from the US shows that imprisoning a large number of people for longer periods of time results in short term declines in crime, but long term increases in crime when they are eventually released. High rates of incarceration are also seen to exacerbate the very social problems that led to the increase in crime in the first place, creating a system ‘that feeds upon itself’. For this reason, the pamphlet suggests that cost-benefit analyses of sentences for crime need to consider long term effects and ‘spill-over effects’ into other policy arenas.
Finally, if it is accepted that it makes sense to punish (if we must) in ways that support change, and to accept our duty (having punished) to support reintegration, then it is suggested that sentences be judged on three criteria:
- their parsimony;
- their support for positive change; and
- their effects on reintegration.
In the pamphlet, the final criterion, reintegration, is seen as a wider concept than rehabilitation or the prevention of reoffending. It is taken to mean buying into being law-abiding, rather than being compelled or cajoled or supervised into doing so, so that external constraint is rarely required. That, it is suggested, in the long run provides the most cost-effective path to crime control.
The full paper can be read here.