Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Strange Argument About Whether Prison Is A Deterrent

Some of you may be interested in my response to an IEA writer’s peculiar argument for why Prisons do not act as a deterrent to crime. Some of you may not. 

I have to take issue with the claim that “Prisons do not act as a deterrent to crime”. There is a small group for whom that is the case – and that group is the recidivists who, as you say, have a high re-offending rate, and are being sub-optimally helped by the prison system. But saying that prison isn't fit for purpose because of high re-offending rates is an absurd complaint, and a peculiar error of reasoning. It's a bit like complaining that sea defences aren't fit for purpose because occasionally there are extreme coastal conditions that break those barriers.

It would be good if the sea defences prevented all flooding, but their primary job is to protect the land from the ordinary thrust of the sea on a daily basis. Similarly, prison's primary function is to reduce offending (by deterrence and by keeping criminals out of society), not re-offending. If it reduces re-offending then all well and good, but that is not its primary function. It's preposterous to consider whether prison is fit for purpose by only considering the recidivism rates. It's as preposterous as considering how many men in the UK take steroids by only interviewing weight-trainers in gymnasiums.

Such a biased research method would drastically skew the overall figures, and this is what is happening with Vicky Pryce’s “Prisons do not act as a deterrent to crime” claim, as recidivists are people who've already been convicted of a crime, so they are people for whom the threat of prison was no real deterrent first time out. Consequently, they are the biased sample of the population for whom prison is the least likely to be a deterrent second time around. The only proper way to enquire whether prison is fit for purpose is to ask how much of a deterrent it is for the vast majority of people in the UK - those who haven't found themselves outside of the orbit of the law. As far as we can gather, the threat of prison, loss of liberty, loss of employment, and so forth has been a very successful deterrent for a majority of the population.

This is compounded by the fact that when it comes to the change in social status from being an ordinary citizen to a convicted criminal, the first cut really is the deepest. That is to say, the first time a recidivist became a criminal was the worst time for him (or her). It was on that first occasion that he became incarcerated, when up until then he had only been used to freedom, and it was then that he first experienced the change in status that would give him a social stigma and make him harder to employ. If that wasn't a sufficient deterrent, we shouldn't be too surprised that criminals are even less likely to be deterred second time around. I should finish by saying that it’s only on that point I have a quibble – I agree with the rest of the article.