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February 17, 2010

"Harsh Punishment Backfires, Researcher Says"

The title of this post is the headline of this piece from About.com's Crime/Punishment section.  Here is how it gets started:

The current prison system puts too much emphasis on harsh punishment and not enough on rehabilitation and simply doesn't work, according to a criminal justice expert. Focusing on reducing prison populations and offering job skill training could greatly reduce recidivism, research shows.

The current system only provides a breeding ground for more aggressive and violent behavior, according to Joel Dvoskin, PhD of the University of Arizona. "The current design of prison systems doesn't work," said Dvoskin, in a news release. "Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence."

"Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviors, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want," Dvoskin said.  In his up-coming book, "Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending," Dvoskin says behavior modification and social learning principles can work inside prison just as they do outside.

February 17, 2010 at 09:17 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I think this type of argument is slowly becoming the consensus among informed people.

Posted by: Houston Auto Accident Attorney | Feb 17, 2010 10:26:15 AM

Very few of those “informed people” are serving in Congress or the state legislatures.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 17, 2010 11:10:24 AM


It appears to me, that anyone who is in a position
to do anything, won't...It won't look good on their record, soft on crime...

After all getting re-elected is the primary goal that people in power have...Only goal for most.

Where else can you get free insurance and your salary guaranteed for life after serving just one term..

The beatings will continue, until the morale improves....Been happpening since the Federal guidelines were imposed.

Look at the whining and moaning when crack was made retro-active. So many screamed, turning loose all of the criminals at the same time.

They are just as uninformed now as then and I see nothing that will change lazy government employees. Over paid, uncaring and have their own personal agenda.. 99% of them give the rest of them a bad name..

Supremacy Clause, you can do a better job of elaborating on this, than I can....Do it to it..


Posted by: Goodyr | Feb 17, 2010 12:01:08 PM

While some reduction of the prison population could be accomplished safely, the "bromides" offered by this researcher display little practical insight into the issues. Nor does he account for the fact that crime rates are down across the board.

Posted by: mjs | Feb 17, 2010 2:46:58 PM

"I think this type of argument is slowly becoming the consensus among informed people."

That would have been true 50 years ago. The education and rehabilitation model was about to become "the consensus among informed people." By the mid-sixties it had, and it held sway among those "informed people" for 15 years or so.

The same 15 years in which the crime rate roughly doubled.

It then lost favor -- imagine that -- and was replaced by the much detested (on this site) "incarceration nation." The crime rate dropped dramatically, reaching levels it had not seen since the fifties.

Rather than celebrate this success, another "researcher" discovers that incarceration really doesn't work. If the crime rate went down, that's only because of sun spots. The better plan is................to go back to what we already know doesn't work!

One is tempted to suspect that this conclusion has less to do with the realities of the crime rate than with the author's pre-existing bias against punishment.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 18, 2010 12:26:01 AM

Lock em up. It creates jobs. It creates an industry for prosecutors, judges, jailers, social workers, all of them dumbfuks. Jobs for the folks who should have other jobs.

Posted by: mpb | Feb 18, 2010 5:03:44 AM

There is one federal, 50 state, about six territorial and 63 tribal criminal justice systems that are quite diverse and within a single system there can be diversity (such as county-to-county variations in sentencing in a single judicial district). What these systems have in common is an excess of recidivists two of the most important sources being probation violators and juvenile recidivists that age into the adult system.

We need to take a good hard look at the various juvenile justice systems. The data suggests that some state juvenile systems are doing much better than average and we need to profit from their experience. The good news about probation is that it reduces jail and prison populations the bad news it that it increases the number of potential probation violators. I think the problem is that probation is not really chosen as a jail/prison alternative but instead it is selected from a set of bad choices as the one that will cause the least harm.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 18, 2010 10:44:44 AM

Bill--

At least a couple of alternative explanations for a rise in crime from the mid-60s to 80 come to mind.

We could also debate whether "it (more even-handed punishment policies) lost favor" at the end of that period because we hadn't been tough enough on criminals or the Republicans got really good at demagoguing the crime issue.

Posted by: John K | Feb 18, 2010 6:50:33 PM

John K --

Those determined to ignore the link between crime and punishment -- a link recognized by every society in history, so far as I know -- will of course dismiss as coincidence the dramatic increase in the crime rate and the simultaneous dramatic scaling back of the punitive/incarceration model of punishment.

As to "the Republicans got really good at demagoguing the crime issue," one might more correctly say that the Democrats got less good at hiding it -- for which they can't really be blamed, since, with double the amount of crime, it became a lot harder to hide.

And I had not previously been aware that Reagan, who won the 1980 election, achieved victory by "demagoguing" the crime issue. If he had, there were four years in which to expose him before he again faced the voters, who then could have punished him at the polls.

If I recall correctly, that's not exactly what happened in 1984.

People don't need for politicians to be telling them about the increase in crime when they can see it for themselves in their own cities and towns. When the Democrats persist in lecturing the public that they're a bunch of stupid and uncaring yahoos because they want crooks sent to the slammer, they'll get what their arrogance and mendacity has earned them, which is very likely what they'll be getting later this year as well.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 18, 2010 9:38:38 PM

It appears that "Tough on Crime" has been bipartisan since 1951 when the Boggs Act establishing federal mandatory minimum drug sentences was passed. The drug penalties were enhanced in 1956 and Barry Goldwater used "Crime in the Streets" as an issue during the 1964 election. A few years later 66-68 LBJ introduced "War on Crime" legislation but his priorities were violent, sex and property crimes. President Nixon started the "War on Drugs" about 1972 and since then most TOC legislation is passed with nearly unanimous votes.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 18, 2010 10:08:25 PM

Bill --

Maybe so but here's at least one academic who remembers things the way I do:

James O. Finckenauer
School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

An examination of crime, code name "law and order," as a major political issue over four presidential campaigns commencing in 1964 leads to a number of at least tentative conclusions: (1) Law and order has been a campaign issue primarily for conservative candidates challenging more liberal incumbents or incumbent administrations-for example, Gold water (1964), Nixon and Wallace (1968), and Reagan (1976). (2) The conservative proposals for handling crime have generally encompassed an approach to crime control based on the concepts of free will and retributive justice. (3) There are fundamental inconsistencies between the political philosophy of conservatism and certain law and order strategies for handling crime. (4) The monopoly over this issue at the national level by candidates from the political right has had definite effects upon public policy regarding crime-effects that are likely to continue well into the future.

Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 24, No. 1, 13-27 (1978)
DOI: 10.1177/001112877802400102

Posted by: John K | Feb 19, 2010 10:34:03 AM

re: # 2 above

I see nothing inconsistent with the concepts of free will and retributive justice and the basic conservative philosophy of individual responsibility.

Posted by: mjs | Feb 19, 2010 2:00:15 PM

Bill Otis's account of the relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates is impressionistic at best. For example, the overall incarceration rate began to rise in 1973 (i.e., still during the salad days of supposed rehabilitationist hegemony). Whereas from this chart you can see that the absolute number of crimes (unfortunately not finding chart with historical rates, but absolute figures illustrate the point well enough) is flat (with some stochastic variation) from 1973 to 1993, when it begins to drop.

Anyone who can compare those two charts (caveat - source is Wikipedia, with citations to primary source data from DOJ) and find simple covariation between incarceration rates and crime is on some kind of controlled substance, and should be immediately incarcerated.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Feb 19, 2010 10:32:32 PM

Mr. Drake --

My numbers are taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, the second chart to which you refer itself shows a staggering reduction in violent crime, 1993-2003, exactly in the heyday of building "incarceration nation."

Anyone who thinks this is a coincidence is in a lonely place. So far as I'm aware, every society on earth has believed there is a strong relationship between crime and punishment. If there has been one taking the contrary view, please let me know what it is.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 20, 2010 3:56:03 AM

Sentences for serious violent crimes tend to be longer than those for property, drug and public order crimes. A person sentenced to prison for a serious violent crime usually serves 50%, 70% or 85% of the maximum sentence and they are not as likely to be paroled. The claim that incapacitation is an important factor in crime control is true for offenders incarcerated for serious violent crimes.

The majority of the inmates of prison were admitted in the past three years. Their convictions are for a mixture of assaults, property, drug, public order offenses and their sentences are relatively short. Such prisoners often are given a generous good-time-credit and they are in general thought to be good candidates for parole. As a consequence their lengths of confinement are too short for incapacitation to be a significant factor in crime control. On of the consequences of this process is that a high percentage of the prison inmates are recidivists (the revolving-door problem). I think the frustration over recidivism is in part responsible for the popular support for "tough-on-crime'.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 20, 2010 10:30:23 AM

Mr. Otis, I'd already stipulated that crime drops off in 1993. The point of the two charts is precisely that taken together they do not colorably reflect any "coincidence" regarding 1993.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Feb 20, 2010 12:14:07 PM

Bill;

For incarceration to be responsible for a decrease in the violent crime rate the violent criminal must be
1) Arrested and not all are.
2) Charged. In some cases there is insufficient evidence to charge.
3) Convicted. A plea bargain will result in a conviction but not necessarily for a violent crime. The results for trials are mixed.
4) Sentenced to death, LWOP or to prison for a mandatory minimum time. DP and LWOP sentencing rates are low.
5) Those released on parole or upon expiration of sentence are rehabilitated. Rehab rates for hardened criminals are low.

When you consider all of the steps in the process and the small fractions that move to the next step one would not expect a simple relation between the incarceration and crime rates and in particular one would not expect the incarceration rate to lag the violent crime rate.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 20, 2010 2:30:44 PM

John Neff --

"For incarceration to be responsible for a decrease in the violent crime rate the violent criminal must be...[and then you list five things that would have to happen to the defendant]."

What you say is correct as respects individual deterrence, but incorrect as respects the far more important phenomenon of general deterrence.

When the population of potential criminals sees that the realistic chance of going to prison has dramatically increased, there will be much less crime than simply would be accounted for by the incarceration of the particular individuals convicted. Indeed, that's what the notion of general deterrence is all about.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 20, 2010 6:26:22 PM

Bill

If general deterrence is an important crime control factor why is the incarceration rate increasing?

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 20, 2010 7:44:40 PM

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