The 4 Purposes of Incarceration

The biggest problem with America’s prison system is that it does not prepare people to leave. Transforming America’s prisoners requires transforming the way America thinks about prison and its overarching purpose.

Retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and transformation. What do these terms mean, and how do their meanings need to shift?

Our View

Retribution is how the system retaliates against the offender for causing injury to someone else. Serving time is a leading form of retribution, a way for a person to pay for the harm they inflicted on a victim, as they should. But our criminal justice system is shortsighted. Our society is only acknowledging the first victim. 83% of state prisoners released in 2005 were rearrested within nine years, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report. Those arrests make for a second wave of victims, then a third. Focusing just on retribution for the victim is too narrow. Our criminal justice system needs to also transform the prisoner so that the first victim is the last victim.

Incapacitation is the idea that by physically removing someone from society we are able to prevent them from committing future crimes, because they are locked up or restrained somehow. Studies have found incarceration achieves this objective, but most people can only be removed from society for so long. That is why we should focus on how a prisoner can improve themselves while behind bars, because most of them will not stay there forever. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, all but 5% of those behind bars will eventually be released[2] and become our neighbors once more. We need to adopt a “them is us” attitude.

[2] https://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/reentry.pdf

Deterrence is the idea that the threat of punishment will keep people from committing crimes, and that those who have committed crimes will be discouraged from reoffending after experiencing punishment. The problem is, our criminal justice system is simply not as effective as it should be. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 503,600 people were incarcerated in prisons in 1980. In 2016 that number had grown to over 2.3 million. We need to provide direction, not just deterrence.

Rehabilitation Transformation is our word of choice. Many criminal justice reform efforts talk about rehabilitation, but it is not a word you’ll find us using. Rehabilitate means to return something to its original state. We don’t want prisoners to return to their original, crime-committing state; we want to prepare men and women in whatever ways they weren’t prepared before. The guiding principle is that they need to leave better than how they came. We can do that by giving them purpose and providing them with life and job skills during their incarceration. Victims’ families suffer, but there are other victims who are often overlooked: the families of the prisoners. We seek to nurture all families during this time and prepare prisoners for all facets of reentry.

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