Punishment or Treatment: What are our prisons for? sample essay

Get your original paper written from scratch starting at just $10 per page with a plagiarism report and free revisions included!









Hire A Writer


Today, we always hear news about crimes being committed by many people. Moreover, those people who commit crimes tend to offend again their previous criminal acts. The repeating of doing such criminal act is known as recidivism. Specifically, recidivism is the term used when someone, who after receiving a punishment or negative consequences of the criminal behavior, repeat his or her criminal behavior.

Due to the alarming increase in recidivism cases, policy makers in a given country try to find out what will be the best option or solution that will help in decreasing the number of criminal cases and one of their options is the implementation of punishment or what they call deterrence and the other method is rehabilitation.

Deterrence had been a hot issue regarding on its ethical background and most especially its effectiveness in counterattacking recidivism. Many said that it is not effective in its sole purpose. They added that there are other ways to prevent an individual in committing crime again other than forcing those individual to be punished by law.

But there were studies that concluded deterrence to be an effective tool in decreasing crime rate among crime violators whether the deterrence is specific or general. The most popular form of deterrence is imprisonment. Imprisonment brings fright to those possible committers. And this limits them to do crime again because deterrence brings bad experience to those who were found to have committed crime.

The main audiences of this paper are the policy makers that are concerned on recidivism issues. Lawmakers will make certain policy that will guide these offenders and will treat them offenders. The said audience is not limited only to policy makers but also to those people like parole and rehabilitation officers who assess and guides these criminal committers in their probation program.

This paper will try to analyze recidivism occurrence. This paper will have a deep analysis on the reasons why people tend to commit again their previous criminal behavior given that they were already given the right treatment and appropriate consequences to extinguish that behavior.

The paper will not only tackle recidivism but also take a look on the current situation on the policies and actions given to those people who commit criminal acts again. Potential intervention to reduce the risk of recidivism will be one of the focuses of this paper. The effectiveness of the current actions will be emphasized as it will serve as a guide to the people who handle this kind of issue.

The paper will compare deterrence and rehabilitation as the two most popular solutions and actions when dealing with recidivism. Is longer deterrence and rehabilitation will lead to minimize recidivism or will just increase the repeating of undesirable behavior after they have either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or have been treated or trained to extinguish that behavior? The paper will try to answer all these questions to enlighten and give knowledge to the proposed reader of this paper.


Recidivism and Deterrence

In legal terms, deterrence and recidivism are two common terms used. These two terms have many meaning and it depends on the field that the two terms were utilized. Recidivism is the act of returning to the offense that was previously committed. It is the repetition or habitual committing on crimes. The word originated from the Latin word recidīvus which means recurring. The said term is usually used in criminology.

An example of recidivism case is when a sexual offender person who after release from prison does again sexual harassment. Recidivism does not only include sexual harassment but also other form of criminal acts. Recidivism rate has been a major problem of different countries and solution to the increasing rate on recidivism is being done (Maltz, 2007).

Recidivism Theories

After discussing recidivism, the next topic to talk about is the theories behind recidivism. The theories that will explain the occurrence of recidivism are: Anomie, Differential Association Theory, Deviance theory, Labeling theory, Rational Choice theory, Social Control theory, Strain theory, Subcultural theory and Symbolic Interactionism (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

Anomie pertains to the condition malaise or depression of an individual. Depression is the result of minimal guidance set by the governing and ruling body of a country. It is the lack of rules and regulation, standards and values that hinder criminal behavior. When the term anomie is applied in a government, it means social unrest or turmoil. The term anomie is synonymous on normlessness. It means that a person in a society will react against from the social norms which are guided by the set of rules and standards of a given society. Anomie focuses on the social issues rather than on the individual reason why there are such incidences of recidivism.

This theory emphasize that the society has big responsibility in molding and guiding every citizen in the right path. On the other hand, Differential Association theory is almost synonymous to anomie. The said theory was developed by Edwin Sutherland. According to Sutherland, differential association can be seen when a person is being affected by the people around him. That person learns the values of the values, attitudes and behavior of the people around him to do criminal behavior. Thus the society around an individual has big impact on the possible recidivism (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

Deviant behavior is also a possible answer why people tend to engage in repeating criminal acts. When a person displays deviant behavior, he is more likely to commit crimes. He does not know nor follow rules in a given society (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

Labeling theory is another aspect to look in understanding recidivism. In this theory, the person’s deviant behavior is being affected by the people around him because these people try to categorize or label him as a person with abnormal behavior. The society dictates and classifies a person which can include the deviant behavior (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

Looking on the psychological aspect of a person with recidivism case, he or she may have some problem that cannot be resolved easily. Thus, his brain may not function well. That person will try to commit undesirable acts like crime. This is the main point of rational choice theory, in which the person weighs means and ends and makes rational decisions (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

Another theory that has relation to deviant behavior is the Social Control theory. The theory hypothesizes that deviant behavior if a person is a result of the dissatisfaction in a society. The person will break laws as a sign of grief. On the other hand, the Subcultural theory states that within a society, there is a group of person that has natural deviant behavior. If these people meet together, then they will find comfort with each other because they have the same feeling when doing deviant acts (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

And the last theory will be the Strain theory. In criminology, the strain theory states that social structures within society may encourage citizens to commit crime. When the structure of the society inhibits the needs of a person, there is a big possibility that this person will commit unnecessary behavior like crimes (Clarke & Felson, 1993).

For the past few years, the recidivism rate in the United States had a significant increase. Given the figure below, we can see that between 3 years, the number of recidivism in the country in 1994 within the 15 states had increased to 70% which is higher than the year 1983 which had a record of 60%.

According to the Office of Justice Program, OPJ of the United Stares, 67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years, an increase over the 62.5% found for those released in 1983. The figure also shows that, all the crime categories had a relevant increase from 1983 to 1994. The property offenders, drug offenders and public-order offenders had increased from 68.1% to 73.8%, 50.4% to 66.7% and 54.6% to 62.2% respectively.

Moreover, OPJ emphasized that in the year 1994, recidivism rate within 3 years was estimated to be 51.8% of prisoners released during the year were back in prison for the reason of a committing fresh crime for which they received another prison sentence, or because they were not able to follow the regulations of their parole.

Figure 1. Recidivism rate in 1983 and 1994


For this paper, two topics regarding on the correctional methods will be focused and these are deterrence and parole and probation. These two methods differ with each other in terms of the process and principle being employed. The former believes that correctional means can be attained and achieved when punishment or negative consequence is applied in the crime committer while the former consider the rehabilitation and education of prisoners.

Another term which has relation on recidivism is deterrence. Deterrence is the act of providing necessary punishment on those who commit crime. The degree of the punishment depends also on the degree of the crime that was committed (Maltz, 2007).

There are two forms of deterrence, the specific and the general. The former describes deterrence as punishment given only to the individual who committed the crime while the latter describe deterrence as punishment on the general audience. Specific deterrence is also known as individual deterrence. The general deterrence focuses on general prevention of crime by making examples of specific deviants. The individual actor is not the focus of the attempt at behavioral change, but rather receives punishment in public view in order to deter other individuals from deviance in the future.

Deterrence as a major tool in lessening recidivism rate gained many criticisms about its effectiveness. Many said that deterrence, whether it is specific or general, is not effective in decreasing the crime rate in the country. Some studies regarding on the effectiveness of deterrence found that violators are not afraid on the punishment, but rather they are more afraid on the act of caught.

Usually, the offenders are the drug and alcohol abusers. This result was supported on the findings on areas where surveillance cameras were introduced. Possible violators were afraid to be caught from the surveillance cameras thus lowering the rate of crime cases. General deterrence has also been heavily criticized for relying on publicity of heavy punishments; it has been described as “the least effective and least fair principle of sentencing”. Other countries like the Great Britain believe on rehabilitation procedure rather than deterrence.

Deterrence Theory

But why deterrence is still being implemented in many criminal procedures? To answer this question, it is better to examine the principle behind the use of punishment to eradicate crimes. In behavioral psychology, deterrence is theory on introducing punishment for those who violated the law. Today, United States is adopting and implementing this practice in their criminal justice procedure. The principle behind the use of an iron hand for those who committed crime is that, the violator will be afraid when introduced to punishment and will refrain from doing it again.

Deterrence: Effective or not?

This paper will try to analyze the effectiveness if deterrence in minimizing the crime rate or the recidivism among countries. Also, the two types of deterrence, specific and general will be examined.

There were many studies were conducted to address the problem in the rise of recidivism. Part of the studies was the implementation of punishment among the violators. The studies analyze procedure on the implementation as well the effectiveness of the said procedures.

According to the study that was made by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, punishment among violators on individuals who are apprehended for driving under the alcohol influence (DUI), driving while intoxicated (DWI), or related offenses such as driving after suspension for a DUI and violation of zero tolerance laws found that giving them a sanction is effective in doing the said crimes again.

As a matter of fact, many policy makers use punishment to control the rise of crimes on their countries. They developed laws that will hinder in doing offense or any unlawful act. People are afraid on the punishment like going to jail. The principle behind the use of any kind of punishment is the inculcation or realization of the bad experiences from punishment (Henry, 2003).

Specific deterrence has a positive effect on the decrease in the rate of crime cases. An individual will think again if he or she will do the crime again after the individual had a bad experience of the punishment he or she received earlier. This will make the potential offender afraid on the possible sanction he may incur and will also produce doubt in doing the crime again (Martin & Ellis, 1998).

General deterrence also produce a positive effect in relation to the lessening the crime rate in a given place. People will have an idea on the proposed sentence or penalty. The most popular example of general deterrence is going to jail. The media will broadcast the bad condition of a person in a jail. According to studies, jail imprisonment is more effective as a general deterrent, but it appears to be no more effective as a specific deterrent for reducing DUI recidivism than other sanctions, and it is far more costly (Martin & Ellis, 1998).

Another form of deterrence is the administrative license suspension or any other criminal records that will be a problem is any job employment. When a person committed a crime, he or she will have criminal record and when this person will apply for a job, the company he or she is applying will need a criminal clearance, if in United States, an FBI clearance. When the person applying for the job had a criminal record, the company will hesitate to employ the said individual. This form of deterrence had created an impact in the reduction of recidivism (Martin & Ellis, 1998).

To strengthen the argument on the effectiveness of deterrence when it comes to the elimination of recidivism, another study was conducted to determine the effect of the length of imprisonment to the number of law violations. According to Weinrath and Gartrell (2001), they concluded that sentence length exerted consistent deterrent effects on repeat drunk driving, even for chronic offenders. While in a shorter jail imprisonment, the offenders that will be imprisoned at shorter time were more likely to repeat their habitual crime commitment. This finding will strengthen the evidence on the argument that deterrence is an effective tool in lessening the crime rate in a given place ( Weinrath and Gartrell, 2001). Moreover, longer deterrence has positive impact in lessening recidivism rate.

Another classification of deterrence is the severity and strictness. According to Henry (2003), mild punishment tends to have positive effects on decreasing recidivism while those severe consequences produce negative effects. Psychological research on punishment in has shown that mild punishment can be effective in changing behavior and is dependent on the frequency, immediacy application and with positive reinforcement of pro-social behavior. On the other hand, severe punishment will only lead to avoidance or escape, alienation of those punished, and aggressiveness.

Parole and Rehabilitation

There are many possible causes why recidivism is present in our society. One is the problem in their family. When the parents of the family are not around in their home or a broken family, these are possible factors. The most prone to commit recidivism that is results on the minimal parental guidance are the youth or juvenile. The juveniles are not being monitored on their activities. This kind of family structure is not good for a child because juveniles has a low self control especially when encountering serious problem like family problems, they tend to break and to escape to the problem, they break the laws and norms of the society. In this period, they are engage in drinking alcohol and drug abusing. There will come a time when they will repeat the crime they had committed before.

Problems in their schooling are other factors that contribute to the increase in juvenile recidivism cases. If a child experience failing grades or does not do well in class, the child will find a way to escape on their problems and this may lead to juvenile delinquency activities.

Another major cause of recidivism among is the social factor. This can be explained when a person experienced racial discrimination, sexual harassment, abandonment, physical abuse and neglect. The society may dictate what an innocent person can do. If a person is surrounded by criminal incidences, that person may be influenced by these wrong doings. This is somewhat related to peer to peer relation. If group of people has engaged in wrong doing like alcohol drinking, drug abusing, the innocent person may be influenced. (Roberts, 2000)

Because of the alarming news and impact of recidivism in the society, the government of United States made a program to lessen the impacts and cases of reoffending of criminal acts in the society. Lawmakers made a response to these issues. They made laws and policies that will eliminate recidivism cases in the society. Children who commits the case were been rehabilitate in a rehabilitation center to put in to realization the crime they had committed and how to escape from the disorder of their behaviors.

Parole and probation are both part of the rehabilitation program made by lawmakers. Dressler (1959) defined parole as the release of the delinquent outside the rehabilitation center under supervision of a parole officer. The offender had undergone rehabilitation in a correctional center. The word parole was in the French language is defined as promise and in dictionary context it is word of honor.

The release is conditional and the behavior of the delinquent is being monitored. While probation is the release of the delinquent to the community in which he can rehabilitate his behavior better. Like parole, the offender’s behavior is being monitored by the probation officer. The word probation comes from the Latin language meaning a period of supervision and guidance. Probation in church term means the period were a person is seeking in the entrance to the church.

In a rehabilitation center, probation is a treatment where the offender will have the chance to have socialized in a community. Probation and parole programs are being handled by the court members.

The delinquent under parole program had stayed in the rehabilitation center. Both parole and probation programs are made to change the behavioral problems of the offenders. They believe that rehabilitation can be made better to the offenders if they stay in a community than staying in prison. In the parole program, offenders are given the second chance to change their behaviors, as well in the probation program. The offenders tend to learn their lesson after they undergone in this two programs.

Torbet (1996) said that probation or parole program on recidivism cases has been overwhelming dispositional decision of court judges. Almost half of the recidivism cases were made to probation or parole program. Torbet said also that probation is the roughest sanction that the offender can received. At the end of 80’s decade, Whitehead and Lab (1989) made a meta analysis on the effects of probation or parole treatment on the behavior of the juvenile delinquent and concluded that probation programs lessen the recidivism of the offender.

In 1992, Lipsey released another meta analysis study regarding on probation or parole programs. The result also showed that recidivism was lessening on juvenile delinquent when probation is granted to them than those in comparison group. In 1998, Lipsey together with Wilson conducted another Meta analysis study on the effects of serious juvenile delinquent cases to probation program. The result also showed that probation lessens the cases in recidivism. The results also suggest that there are many variations on how the probation program is being worked.

Some studies had been conducted to determine the effects of the duration of probation programs to recidivism. Wooldredge in 1998 found that the longer the time of probation the greater are the incidence of recidivism. Longer duration made the offenders to have impatience and disrespect on the probation officers. Wooldredge concluded that two years of supervision is the ideal duration for a probation program.

Another study was conducted by Sontheimer and Goodstein (1993) to find out how intensive probation aftercare programs lessen the occurrence of offending using random assignment. And the result showed that it does not lessen the occurrence that the offender will commit again juvenile crime.

Parole and Probation; Effective or not?

Effective response on recidivism cases is a key to minimize the occurrence of the said cases. Effective intervention on the possible causes of recidivism cases and the proper management to the offenders is the first step in reducing the reoffending of crime cases.

Studies show that effective intervention reduce the recidivism rate. The effective intervention has a significant effect on recidivism rate. It made a 6% reduction from the previous cases. (Lipsey, 1992)


Clarke, R. V. and M. Felson (1993). Advances in Criminological Theory, Vol 5. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Dressler, D. (1959). Practice and Theory of Probation and Parole.

Henry, S. (2003). On the Effectiveness of Prison as Punishment [Electronic Version]. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from

Lipsey, M. W. (1992). Juvenile delinquency treatment:Ameta-analytic inquiry into the ariabilityof effects.: New York: RussellSage Foundation.

Maltz, M. D. Recidivism. (2007). [Electronic Version]. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from

Martin, S. E., & Ellis, E. (1998). EFFECTIVENESS OF STRATEGIES FOR PREVENTING DUI RECIDIVISM [Electronic Version]. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from

Roberts, C. H. (2000). Juvenile Delinquency: Cause and Effect. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, II.

Sontheimer, H., &Goodstein, L. (1993). An evaluation of juvenile intensive aftercare probation: Aftercare versus system response effects. Justice Quarterly,.

Torbet, P. M. (1996). Juvenile probation: The workhorse of the juvenile justice system. Washington

Weinrath, M., & Gartrell, J. (2001). Specific Deterrence and Sentence Length. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 17(2, 105-122 ).

Whitehead, J. T., &Lab, S.P. (1989). Ameta-analysis of juvenile correctional treatment. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency,

Wooldredge, J. D. (1988). Differentiating the effects of juvenile court sentences on eliminating recidivism. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.