5.2.7 The Penal System

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/527.htm)

A penal system has multiple objectives:

  • punishment of offenders, to satisfy victims and others that ‘justice has been done’;
  • rehabilitation of offenders, to lessen the chance of them reoffending;
  • deterrence of would-be offenders by fear of punishment;
  • compensation for wrongs, by some form of restitution;
  • protection of society from future harm by known offenders.

In reaction to an incident, and stirred up by the media, politicians and the public sometimes lose sight of the need for balance between these objectives.  People’s instinctive desire to punish offenders, egged on by victims and their families seeking revenge, can take precedence over the wider interests of society.  The outcome is all too often an overreliance on prison as a punishment.

There are good reasons for reducing prison sentences or finding other ways to achieve the objectives: prisons are costly to build, costly to operate, and they provide criminals with new contacts and ideas for further crimes.  The Economist reports that There is nothing inevitable about America’s over-use of prisons and that it is possible to “lock fewer people up and still preserve public safety”.  Various alternatives are available:

  • Tagging allows offenders to continue working whilst keeping track of their movements to ensure that they comply with conditions imposed by the court.
  • Community service is less expensive than prison, or even probation, for certain types of offence, and the service is, by definition, of benefit to society. It can also be more educative to ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ where possible.  There is no reason why any organisation which can provide appropriate supervision should not offer itself as an outlet for community service.
  • Dialogue with victims has proved effective for some types of crime, causing offenders to recalibrate their behaviour.

All of these alternatives offer a better route than imprisonment, for offenders to reintegrate with society and become constructive citizens.  A negotiated approach to this topic would take account of the needs of society as a whole and the appropriate use of the other dimensions of power:

  • Cost, including loss of the offender’s potential earnings and tax contributions, should be taken into account.
  • From a moral perspective, it can be argued that damage to the offender’s life prospects should not be disproportionate to the crime committed. It is likely that an offender who has been sent to jail would be rendered unemployable thereafter.
  • The law should be allowed to take a medium-to-long term view of the needs of society, rather than respond to short-term political pressure.
  • Mature political leadership would try to lead the population towards solutions that are in society’s best interests rather than provide an eye-catching tactical response by introducing new legislation to increase punishments.

In general it can be argued that politicians in the legislature should focus on making appropriate penal solutions available; they should allow the judiciary to take decisions about individual cases.

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