[Link] Why prison doesn't work and what to do about it

post by mesilliac · 2012-07-30T05:30:41.114Z · score: 12 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 20 comments

link: http://www.philosophersbeard.org/2012/07/why-prison-doesnt-work-and-what-to-do.html

I came across this short well-reasoned essay via reddit, but most of the discussion there was by people who (ironically enough) appeared not to have read it. The comment section under the article itself was similar. Some seemed not to have read the first paragraph.

Prison time is a very severe punishment. JS Mill likened it to being consigned to a living tomb.* Any society that employs it should do so with care and restraint. Yet we do not. Partly because we think that prison is a humane punishment, it is drastically over-used in many countries, to the point of cruelty. Aside from failing in humanity, prison does not even perform well at the specific functions of a criminal justice system, namely, deterrence, retribution, security, and rehabilitation. We need to reconsider our over-reliance on prison, and reconsider whether other types of punishment, including capital and corporal punishment, may sometimes be more effective and more humane.

The author's arguments against the imprisonment system, and for alternative methods of punishment, are interesting. They touch upon ideas which are hard to consider rationally. The very idea of punishment is something most people appear to find unpleasant. Indeed so it must be if something is to be considered a punishment.

Flogging is barbaric and ugly. Yet that in itself does not mean it is cruel or inhumane or otherwise unfit as a punishment. Punishments, by definition, are supposed to be very unpleasant.

I found some relevant previous discussion on Less Wrong (Crime and Punishment, The Wrath of Kahneman), and Overcoming Bias (Prison is Cruel), but these seem to be about specifics, and not the system in general.

I am curious both what the scientific consensus is on punishment systems, and what Less Wrong thinks of them. With such an emotionally charged issue, it's hard to find rational discussion about it.

20 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2012-07-30T11:42:31.893Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

We had a long discussion about prison on LW last year.

comment by mesilliac · 2012-07-31T02:52:20.504Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, it will take me a while to get through all this. There are some great comments in there.

comment by Bill_McGrath · 2012-07-30T09:59:22.989Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've disagreed with people before on this topic; I feel that the primary goals of the system should be rehabilitation (so that society can make productive use of former offenders) and deterrence. I've discussed it with people who seem to argue the primary goal is punishment - perhaps this is intended to work as deterrence, but it's clear that this is not the case. A "you were bad, now you get punished" mindset seems to be at work, rather than one seeking to solve the issues. The notion that people who committed crimes should not be allowed to learn new skills or seek ways of bettering themselves because they are being punished is not uncommon, even though this removes an opportunity for people to try and get out of a criminal lifestyle.

On the other hand, recidivism is pretty high in Ireland, and I've heard that here and elsewhere, prison is practically a criminal education centre. Sentences are often inconsistent - I'll try find some examples of weird sentencing - and often cut short.

The only conclusion I can draw here is that current system is a total mess, and needs significant overhaul.

I'm okay with capital punishment for particularly serious crimes. There was a good post on this recently.

Final point: I've heard it said (though cannot find figures on this) that in parts of the US, the time spent waiting on death row is so long, that your life expectancy is higher if you murder someone when you're in your early twenties than if you stay on the streets. Interesting that choosing execution could be seen as a rational choice.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-30T10:25:45.683Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Final point: I've heard it said (though cannot find figures on this) that in parts of the US, the time spent waiting on death row is so long, that your life expectancy is higher if you murder someone when you're in your early twenties than if you stay on the streets. Interesting that choosing execution could be seen as a rational choice.

QALYs, anyone? Probably one would get a larger amount of Fun in 10 years on the streets than in 15 years on death row.

comment by ryjm · 2012-07-30T13:28:06.134Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unless being on "the streets" means running with gangs and/or living in a slum. I'd rather spend those years in jail rather than watch my friends get shot (assuming that I'm stuck in this environment and have come to the conclusion that murdering is bad, revenge is unsatisfactory, etc).

Though I can't imagine a situation where a person is rational enough to choose jail over the streets but not rational enough to find another way out of his current situation.

comment by evand · 2012-07-30T15:12:51.668Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the main points of the article is that you are underestimating the cruelty of prison as a punishment.

comment by handoflixue · 2012-08-02T20:52:05.813Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard anecdotes from most of my friends in Alaska: Outside of major cities like Juneau, it's common for anyone on the streets to spend the winter in jail. Since they can't be jailed without having first committed a crime, they just keep committing some trivial crime that will require their arrest but is otherwise fairly harmless (blatantly stealing a single loaf of bread, urinating in public, etc.)

comment by prase · 2012-08-03T19:40:54.010Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Alaska urinating in public can get you to jail?

comment by handoflixue · 2012-08-03T20:58:53.053Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, they're lenient like that. In the US, that's often enough to put you as a registered sex offender for life. unreliable Google citation

comment by prase · 2012-08-03T23:10:46.942Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you mean by "often"? For example, if I urinate in a dark corner and accidentally a policeman walks by, what's roughly the median and mean jail time I should expect and the probability of being registered as sex offender?

comment by handoflixue · 2012-08-06T19:26:45.151Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not a lawyer. Consult your local laws for details on possible jail sentences. My experience is that actual court data is notoriously unsearchable for a layperson, so I suspect median and mean sentences would be very difficult to calculate. These are also modified by judges who reduce or dismiss the charge.

My understanding (IANAL!) is that the probability of being registered as a sex offender, assuming you've committed a crime on The Big List Of Sex Crimes, is 100%. Consult your local laws for details on whether public urination is actually on said list, as it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

You also have to factor in whether the police officer actually cares enough to arrest you (which, if you're clearly a sober, polite, middle-class, white, male, is probably fairly low)

comment by gwern · 2012-08-06T21:26:32.603Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience is that actual court data is notoriously unsearchable for a layperson, so I suspect median and mean sentences would be very difficult to calculate.

I agree; I spent a while doing that for modafinil, and I don't feel especially satisfied with the results.

comment by prase · 2012-08-06T23:03:02.148Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My local laws are probably very different from those valid in Alaska. I am asking just for curiosity, since it hadn't occurred to me that urinating in public can be such a major problem. I am not planning to travel to Alaska to urinate there.

comment by knb · 2012-07-31T01:08:55.426Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Spending time in jail is worse than any "streets" I've ever heard of, and I'm from Detroit. If its about the trauma of watching people you know get harmed, that happens pretty constantly in jail, and less often even the worst neighborhoods.

comment by prase · 2012-08-03T19:42:31.767Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When the temperature drops to -30C, jail seems better than street.

comment by mesilliac · 2012-07-31T03:13:26.374Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I tend to agree with you about rehabilitation being the primary requirement. I've also found that many people desire retribution first and foremost.

It seemed strange that civil service wasn't mentioned in the article. In my country it is quite common as a minor punishment. Undesirable jobs such as cleaning of public areas are at once highly visible (people can see that they are unpleasant, and that punishment is being carried out) and rehabilitative (a work ethic must be developed to carry out the sentence). Even this, however, is hard to contemplate, as it smells like slavery.

I wonder what other options there may be that are simply hard to table, but obvious in retrospect.

That linked discussion on capital punishment is interesting, thank you :).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-31T00:14:49.945Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

punishment - perhaps this is intended to work as deterrence, but it's clear that this is not the case.

This is not clear to me, in fact the opposite seems more intuitive. Why don't you think punishments deter crime?

comment by Bill_McGrath · 2012-07-31T01:33:54.267Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few things lead me to this conclusion. a) High crime rates. b) High levels of recidivism. And though it wasn't something I was aware of before, it seems relevant c) the fact that it seems people underestimate how unpleasant prison will be reduces its effectiveness as a deterrent. I agree the opposite seems more intuitive, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

comment by see · 2012-07-31T05:00:49.066Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nobody has come up with any system of punishment that provably provides deterrence or rehabilitation. When someone does, there will be some point in complaining the existing alternative doesn't. A criterion all alternatives fail is not a basis for a decision.

How about security? Well, yes, prison isn't particularly necessary for rendering corporate fraudsters not a threat, but, how much of the prison population is such? For the ordinary run of thieves and violent criminals, prison does prevent further predation on the populace for the duration of their stays. But would we be safe if they went free? The author claimed only a "small minority" of prisoners are habitual dangers. Well, the rate at which prisoners released in 1994 were re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years was 67.5%, and the re-conviction rate was 46.9%. That doesn't seem like a "small minority" to me. USDOJ Recidivism of Prisoners Released study

The author mentions that if security were the goal, "people found guilty of attempted murder would go to prison for as long as murderers." Well? The Model Penal Code, in fact, does provide the same punishment for both attempted and successful crimes down the whole list. This is not consistently implemented by the states, but it is a standard that most codifications have been moved toward in the last 50 years.

And when we get to his claim that imprisonment is more severe a punishment than execution, well, certainly the people facing execution seem to fairly consistently prefer extending their prison stays to death. That would seem to be a better indication of the severity from the convict's perspective than the author's imagination.

comment by ScottMessick · 2012-08-03T05:11:21.259Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't read the article, but I want to point out that prisons are enormously costly. So there is still much to gain potentially even if the new system is only equally effective at deterrence and rehabilitation.

The fact that prisons are inhumane is another issue, of course.