When a criminal defendant is charged and convicted of a crime, they are often sentenced to a term of incarceration. This period of imprisonment is imposed with the expectation that their criminal activities will be stopped and that their time in custody will rehabilitate them so that they will lead a law-abiding life upon release. The ideal of prisons is that they are designed to help in this rehabilitational process — to be tools that not only punish past crime, but also deter future crime and prepare offenders for a law-abiding life post-release.
- As a deterrent, prisons may be working. Crime rates are indeed dropping (a positive sign), but recidivism rates remain persistently high (a negative sign). This can mean a number of things and leads many experts to rate the effectiveness of prisons as a deterrent to crime as inconclusive.
- As a punishment, prisons are “working,” in the sense that millions of people are serving time in prison, and this time is not a pleasant experience. Categorically, inmates do not want to return to prison due to the harsh conditions found therein and the damage these correctional facilities incur on those subjected to them. There is the additional “bonus” of employing more guards and other staff.
- As a place for rehabilitation, prisons are failing, and they are failing miserably, with recidivism rates remaining sky high. The fact is that most released prisoners will return to a life of crime. This often boils down to them not being employable, but regardless of the reason, they are returning to crime in droves.
Once a person is charged with a crime and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the assumption is that after their time in prison they will do whatever it takes to avoid going back. Yet, in the last several decades, there has been an increase in the number of released prisoners that have ended up back in the criminal justice system. This is known as recidivism.