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January 30, 2009

Should we consider military service as an alternative to incarceration?

The Fall 2008 issue of the Justice Policy Journal includes this interesting article titled simply "Alternatives to Incarceration."  However, as this abstract reveals, the piece is focused on one particularly interesting alternative:

While previous research has sought to evaluate prisoners’ perceptions of various alternatives to imprisonment, most have centered on the prisoners perspective as to the perceived severity of the alternative punishment.  This research is quite different, as the proposed alternative does not seek to punish but rather to rehabilitate.  The proposed alternative argues that military enlistment be utilized as an alternative to incarceration we intend to determine if prisoners would welcome such an alternative.  Researchers have identified a correlation between military service and desistance from crime among youths, many of whom have had delinquent pasts.  This current project is intended to expand upon the life course perspective as the military can act as a “rehabilitative agent” which will act as a hook for change, thereby facilitating desistance from criminal behavior.

In the current study, we argue that military service can facilitate social bonds, promote prosocial network contacts, and teach skills necessary for successful integration into the dominant society.  Because of the benefits military service offers, it is hypothesized that prisoners will be receptive to such an alternative to incarceration.  Through our interviews with prisoners at a minimum security facility in Kentucky, we discovered that indeed prisoners overwhelmingly would welcome such an alternative.

UPDATE:  A terrific former student sent me this e-mail noting that there is historical precedent for military service as an alternative punishment:

One of the ways of avoiding a sentence of death during the middle ages was to accept a pardon from the King for service in the army for a year.  “The terms were readily accepted, and the King increased his force by a number of men who would perhaps be inferior to none in courage, though they might not improve the discipline of the army.”  Stanley Grupp, Some Historical Aspects of the Pardon in England, 7 Am. J.L. Hist. 51, 55 (1963).

January 30, 2009 at 01:41 AM | Permalink


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Prisoners may welcome this as an alternative,
but professional soldiers do not.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Jan 30, 2009 2:49:29 PM

I would say that it is a good idea, but then I remember that crazy Archer Maggot and I am not so sure.

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Jan 30, 2009 5:15:11 PM

This just goes to show that "educated" liberals are totally divorced from common sense and reality. It reveals a comtempt for the working class, and a contempt for those who serve in the military - equating them with criminals.

The military is, mostly, made of professionals who seem far more intelligent on average than the fool who wrote this article. I have served ten years, and in my experience, while people are people, the military attracts and holds people who are law abiding and orderly. The scum who go into the service to avoid court cases do stand out - they have nasty and aggressive personalities, and cause problems while in service. Noone likes to serve with someone who's there because a judge let them volunteer for service rather than face trial. It diminishes and demeans the honor of the profession.

Posted by: Mike | Jan 31, 2009 1:11:31 AM

The comment from "Mike" shows only how out of touch he is with the people in his own military. Surely you have met people who led a "colorful" life before joining the military and straightening out? If you want to drape your ignorance with a flag, don't demean the service by refusing to at least concede the awesome ability of the military to help people become the best they can be, whoever they were.

It is a testament to American military culture and training that all kinds of people coming from all kinds of difficult situations can join and become a respected and self-respecting part of a regimented support network. As a former Petty Officer in the USN, I wouldn't go long without meeting someone who joined to escape conditions at home. I only knew of one person who was explicitly given a choice of joining the military or going to prison, but he made the best of his situation and even ended up reenlisting. I think it also speaks to the correlation between education and recidivism; though I only knew the one guy who had been forced by a judge to make the choice, I knew plenty of others who had left difficult situations behind, knowing that they would have wound up in prison (or dead) but received education in the military that gave them more hope for finding a meaningful and productive place in society.

Now that I am out of the military and a student of economics, I'm inclined to believe that a sudden lack of order and regimen is behind the disproportionate levels of homelessness of veterans, as well as the fact that these sailors, soldier and marines often return to the same problems they left behind. But it's also possible that the kinds of people that are compelled to join are already the kinds of people that become homeless (and in desperation, turn to crime) in the absence of a strict social order. Either way, military service makes sense as an alternative to punishment for people a judge deems to be on the beginning of a bad path. For all the its ills, military life does instill core values, an unquestioning urge to help your fellows and a respect for authority while providing opportunities largely unavailable in the prison system. For first or second time offenders of theft and property crimes, I'd say coerced enlistment would be a more effective and less expensive option, socially as well as financially.

Posted by: Christian | Jan 31, 2009 4:25:41 AM

During Vietnam some criminals were given the option to go to war and have the records wiped clean. Some went for it and others did not. Petty criminals, no problem, there are a lot of petty criminals already in the military so it wouldn't make much difference. Violent criminals however would be another question. Murders, rapist and the like are probably not a good option for military service. We have so many Soldiers coming in the military today that get Chaptered out or commit suicide before they even have a chance to deploy that having some of the petty criminals come in military would probably fill the gap from the ones that barely make it past Basic Training.

Posted by: Dennis | Jul 14, 2010 4:00:33 PM

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