Monday, June 26, 2006

Why We Incarcerate

A frequent commenter wrote, in our thread regarding crime and leniency in Great Britain:

Based on these trends, 2% of the adult population in this country is likely to continuously break the law. Punishment seems to work dandy, yessirree!

The commenter's sarcasm is absurdly misplaced. Holding those people in prison definitely prevents them from committing crimes against the public during the period of their incarceration. In this way, incarceration most certainly works to reduce crime.

It is true that a punishment should fit the crime, but that means not only that it should not be too severe but also that it should not be too mild. The appropriate severity of punishment for any particular crime is a valid matter for debate. What is not debatable, however, is that incarceration reduces crime. It does so, at the very least by taking the criminal out of circulation.

It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible.

16 comments:

Francis W. Porretto said...

There've been any number of practical tests of this thesis, and they've all borne it out, to wit: If you're securely confined within a reinforced concrete box populated solely by other antisocial thugs, you won't hurt anyone who hasn't already earned it.

Refinements of the theory might be possible, but the truth of the ground-state proposition is hardly in doubt.

Tlaloc said...

"The commenter's sarcasm is absurdly misplaced. Holding those people in prison definitely prevents them from committing crimes against the public during the period of their incarceration."

That's not the point. If the system were geared wtoward preventing crime rather than responding to it we might not need the expense of locking up a sizable population of people and holding them as long as we can.

Staying healthy is always better than curing your illness.



"It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible."

Or if one wanted to live in a low crime society. Prevention can work. Punishment does not (except for the occasional fluke like the author quoted in the previous blog post). Oh and we can add in those people who don't want to shell out gobs of cash towards a failed judicial system. They too might see our current system as a problem.

Tlaloc said...

"There've been any number of practical tests of this thesis, and they've all borne it out, to wit: If you're securely confined within a reinforced concrete box populated solely by other antisocial thugs, you won't hurt anyone who hasn't already earned it."

However the corrollary is that if you are confined in a reinforced concrete box populated solely by antisocial thugs you will remain an antisocial thug. Unless you want to advocate life sentence for every infraction it is a losing proposition.

James Elliott said...

Mr. Karnick, that fact that recidivism rates remain constant no matter the length of incarceration reveals your argument below to be specious. But then, not only is it specious, you've now moved the "discussion" away from your first point...

"In this way, incarceration most certainly works to reduce crime."

This is a convenient straw man. To place the comment in the context of the thread below, the contention that I disputed was that incarceration is preferable to rehabilitation as a means of correcting behavior (your underlying thesis). Looking at the visible effects of incarceration versus recidivism reveals that our current system of penal justice (stop guffawing, children) is empirically and demonstrably ineffective for those who experience it. Your conclusion in the post below is not supported by the real world.

My comment should be interpreted in the frame it was offered, not the frame you wish to put it in: As a refutation of your base assumption. Nowhere do I discuss the principle of punishment for the crime, or that incarceration does not lower crime rates in the short-term (it does); in the long-term, as a deterrent (i.e. preventative) measure, incarceration is remarkably ineffective. For free-market thinkers, sometimes you fellows are remarkably short-sighted about returns on investment.

"It is true that a punishment should fit the crime, but that means not only that it should not be too severe but also that it should not be too mild."

You would probably be surprised to find that I take a fairly dim view of criminal behavior and favor firm punishment that requires someone to take responsibility for their actions. In fact, I'm willing to be quite harsh in some areas where other liberals might be more inclined to be sympathetic. I reserve a special circle of my contempt for drunk drivers, for example.

Where I disagree with punishment is in the idea that it is an either/or proposition between it and rehabilitation; i.e. how it is meted out currently in our system.

After all, the point of your post below was to paint Nick Love as the poster-boy for punishment as better deterrence than rehabilitation, not to argue that increased sentencing reduces crime rates (which is what you changed it to mean in this post). Don't move the goal posts just because you don't like sarcasm directed at your erroneous conclusions.

James Elliott said...

"It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible."

Another logical fallacy, and one meant purely to deride. I thought you were above such things.

Francis W. Porretto said...

"One of the most important questions about any proposed course of action is whether we know how to do it. Policy A may be better than policy B, but that does not matter if we simply do not know how to do policy A. Perhaps it would be better to rehabilitate criminals, rather than punish them, if we knew how to do it. Rewarding merit might be better than rewarding results if we knew how to do it. But one of the crucial differences between those with the tragic vision and those with the vision of the anointed is in what they respectively assume that we know how to do. Those with the vision of the anointed are seldom deterred by any question as to whether anyone has the knowledge required to do what they are attempting."

-- Thomas Sowell, The Vision Of The Anointed: Self-Congratulation As A Basis For Social Policy, Basic Books, 1995. Emphases in the original.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

...a failed judicial system...

A poster above mentioned our judicial system.

If we really had a justice system in this country, where perps were required to compensate their victims for their crimes, maybe we wouldn't need to incarcerate at such a "high" rate.

James Elliott said...

"...if we knew how to do it..."

But we do. For example, felons who participate in vocational training and job placement are three times less likely to recidivate than their non-trained peers. The more one is educated, the less likely they are to commit an offense. The list goes on.

We know how. We just aren't willing to do it.

S. T. Karnick said...

Mr. Elliott accuses me of "moving the goalposts," but in fact he is the one who has done so. My original post noted that criminals who are in prison cannot commit crimes against outsiders, and that incarceration therefore works at least to that extent. He calls this a "convenient straw man," when it is nothing of the sort. It is a direct refutation of his assertion that incarceration does nothing. It does something, and what it does is quite important in itself.

My reference to the twofold meaning of the proposition that "the punishment should fit the crime" was clearly an additional element to the discussion. I certainly never suggested that Mr. Elliott had used this phrase, and I was using it in order to bring out more clearly the issues at hand. That does not change the frame of the debate but only serves to make it more visible.

Mr. Elliott then expresses his fervent desire that our correctional system do other things in addition to keeping criminals off the streets. If he is going to make such claims, however, it is incumbent upon him to show that his proposed policies actually work, as Mr. Poretto astutely observed. We await Mr. Elliott's proof with great anticipation.

Finally, Mr. Elliott imputes a satirical intent to my observation that "It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible." On the contrary: I meant that literally. No one who considers for even a moment the brutal murder of a young mother and her innocent child could for the smallest fraction of a second entertain the slightest impulse to mock the value of incarceration in taking criminals off the street. It would be utterly inhuman to do so. Astute readers will note that never in Mr. Elliott's peregrinations in this thread are the victims of crime given explicit mention, much less consideration. Not once. Mr. Elliott may suggest that his desire to rehabilitate criminals would reduce crime rates and thereby prevent future victims, but if that were his main concern, he would mention it at some point, and the victims would clearly be at the forefront of his thinking, as they are in mine. But instead he talks exclusively of the impact on criminals, not on real and potential victims. The latter are most certainly not his main concern by any means, and he proves my statement true by example.

Finally, just so that there shall be no doubt on the matter, nothing in this post or my previous posts and comments on this subject is meant sarcastically or humorously. This is a serious subject and merits reasoned analysis, which is precisely what I have offered. It is Mr. Elliott who has been indulging in impotent sarcasm and mischaracterization or negligent misunderstanding of other's arguments.

S. T. Karnick said...

Mr. Elliott writes: "For example, felons who participate in vocational training and job placement are three times less likely to recidivate than their non-trained peers. The more one is educated, the less likely they are to commit an offense. The list goes on." Mr. Elliott's characterization of the study result is incorrect, by a large measure. The study shows that "for FY 2005: inmates who participated in Federal Prison Industries (FPI) will remain 35 percent less likely after one year and 24 percent less likely to recidivate three to seven years after release from a secure facility, compared to similarly situated inmates who did not participate" (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2005/pma/justice.pdf). Those who participated were not 1/3 as likely to recidivate in one year but approx. 2/3 as likely, and 75 percent as likely after 3 to 7 years. And this does not take into account the likelihood of self-selection bias: that the few felons who participate in vocational training and job placement are those who are already 65 percent less likely to recidivate that their non-trained peers. If Mr. Elliott has an example of a multiply replicated, double-blind study in which felons were randomly assigned to receive these benefits or not have them and it confirmed these findings in repeated trials, I hope that he will cite it for us.

Note, in addition, that no one is claiming that criminals cannot be helped on the road to changing their lives. What is being disputed is whether such change can be real and permanent for a large number of offenders without the punishment for crimes being very unappealing. To show that, Mr. Elliott will have to cite a multiply-replicated, double-blind study in which convicted criminals are placed randomly into four categories: punished and given vocational training and placement; punished and not given vt&p, not punished at all and given vt&p, and not punished at all and not given vt&p. In addition, a variety of severities of punishement would also have to be tried and results tabulated. I have never found anything even approaching this in the scientific literature, and if it exists I should greatly like to see it. In the meantime, Mr. Elliott's assertion that rehabilitation works without the threat of punishment must remain merely an assertion.

On the other hand, we know for a fact that criminals successfully kept behind bars cannot commit crimes among the general public.

James Elliott said...

Feel free to visit a thread below where I address similar critiques from CLA.

"If Mr. Elliott has an example of a multiply replicated, double-blind study in which felons were randomly assigned to receive these benefits or not have them and it confirmed these findings in repeated trials, I hope that he will cite it for us."

Mr. Karnick, if you know anything about science, you know that such a study does not exist because it is both unethical and impractical.

In the thread below (the context to which I refer) you stated, "Love is an example of an individual reforming from a life of crime, but his redemption came through paying a hard price for his crime, he notes, not by immersion in therapeutic treatments by a system more concerned about offenders than for victims and the community." Never once in that post did you state that incarceration reduces the crime rate. You did switch contexts. Anyone who reads "Brits Worried over Lenience on Crime" and then "Why we incarcerate" can see that with a minimal effort.

I have repeatedly demonstrated how incarceration and rehabilitation are not diametrically opposed - never have I opposed incarceration, either in this thread or the one below. I see them as complimentary: Rehabilitation addresses a concern for potential future victims. It's long-term planning, not misplaced sympathy. You're waging an argument that isn't there. If you disagree with rehabilitation as an aspect of incarceration, fine; it's a discussion worth having.

S. T. Karnick said...

Mr. Elliott wrote, "Mr. Karnick, if you know anything about science, you know that such a study does not exist because it is both unethical and impractical." Exactly, and therefore he has nothing to offer but his wishes that rehabilitation works. Not nearly enough.

Then, Mr. Elliott again claims that I changed subjects from my previous post to this one. In doing so, he entirely ignores this passage from the post in question: "a steady stream of high-profile cases in which serious offenders have received minimal sentences has created a rising sense of fear of violent crime among the English public." Perhaps I should have spelled out what is obviously clear in that statment: that the British public believes incarceration reduces crime rates, which is why the public was displeased with the current government's policies regarding the matter. And my obvious assent to that notion was perhaps lost on Mr. Elliott. But we have a right to expect our readers to think a bit before hurling accusations of unfair argumentation.

But that is by no means all that Mr. Elliott has failed to do before making his accusations. It is important to recall that in my initial posting on this subject I entreated readers to read the entire article by Peter Glover before commenting on the subject. In that article, the following passage appears:

"Since he came into office in 2001, the UK's attorney general, Peter Goldsmith, has exercised his power to refer sentences that he regards as "unduly lenient" back to the Court of Appeal no less than 698 times. Of these, 414 offenders had their sentences increased. This figure alone suggests that there is an inherent unwillingness on the part of judges to punish offenders with appropriate custodial sentences at a time when Britain's crime rates are among the highest in the developed world.

"But what has really deepened the concern of the British people with the British justice system is the growing awareness of just what 'do-gooder' liberal polices mean in practice. They include:

"* automatic one-third discount of sentence for pleading guilty.
"* automatic eligibility for parole after half the sentence is served.
"* an early release scheme to aid the issue of over-crowded prisons.
"* the supplanting of a 'punishment that fits the crime' ethos with an emphasis on rehabilitation (i.e. rehabilitating the offender becomes a higher priority than punishment for the crime)."

As that passage makes clear, and as is established in other parts of the original article, the issue at hand, from the very beginning, revolved around the question of whether incarceration prevents crime.

One will also note here that the author of the original article mentions a "punishment that fits the crime" ethos and a contrasting belief that "rehabilitating the offender becomes a higher priority than punishment for the crime." When I later mentioned both of these ideas, Mr. Elliott accused me of changing the subject. His accusation is obviously wrong and entirely unjustified.

The fact that Mr. Elliott neglected to read the article or failed to attend to it carefully has caused him much confusion. One hopes that he will remedy that problem before making additional accusations of switching subjects, etc. I think it is perfectly clear that Mr. Elliott was utterly wrong to make these accusations and to cast them in the nasty way in which he leveled them.

James Elliott said...

Mr. Karnick, I'm going to cry uncle because I truly don't understand where your belligerence and intractability comes from. I'm not interested in fighting with you. I challenged what I read to be an assumption in your first post, that punishment is a superior and sufficient practice. In this thread, I took on what I interpreted as an out-of-context attack on my statements, following a long history of such actions by commenters and posters on this site. Perhaps my error was in assuming you were merely acting the same as those others, since I had, until recently, regarded you as above such shallow tools of argument. If I misinterpreted or misunderstood, mea culpa. That you felt such responses were nasty, well, I can't help that, and I am sorry, since it most likely contributed to the downward spiraling tone of this exchange.

Pax, Mr. Karnick?

S. T. Karnick said...

Mr. Elliott, I agree that you have misinterpreted and misunderstood my points, and especially the intentions behind them, which have been as they always are, a spirit of honest inquiry; and that you responded in what was clearly an unnecessarily belligerent manner. In light of your admission and apology, I agree and accept: Pax.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Elliott, having (silently) witnessed the preceding exchange, I must say that I noticed that STK gave you quite more than his customary time of day in addressing your counterarguments.

I saw it as a sign of respect and appreciation for your history of worthy contibutions to this forum, a respect that I myself share. You are a gentleman of great value.

I have learned of Mr. Karnick that he doesn't spout off without facts and data behind him. He too is a thoughtful and careful man. That he brought his backing facts to your attention in this latest exchange was no doubt for him exhausting and quantitatively unprofitable.

Perhaps, I think he hopes, you'll save him the trouble next time and look up the counterarguments yourself before you call him out as bogus.

This isn't a court, it's a gathering. A symposium, if you will. Kickin' it.

James Elliott said...

I just want to make it clear that any belligerency was because I felt unjustifiably attacked. It is now clear to me that Mr. Karnick felt the same way; the miscommunication at the heart of this was largely my fault, for which I recognize and accept responsibility. My tendency to make assertions without linking to my corresponding evidence doesn't help.