Punishment vs. Rehabilitation within the criminal justice system

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2 March 2016

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I. Why did you pick this topic?
If you were bullied in school as a child, then the “best years” of your life may have felt more like an endless, living nightmare. There is no shortage of social predators trying to boost their self-esteem or status at other people’s expense. Now imagine a school of hard knocks where the concentration of bullies is much higher than their victims. That’s what life may be like for many a convict serving time in prison. How impossible is it to not become hardened and detached under the constant threat of victimization? It’s hard to imagine that reform is part of that equation when one’s very life is at stake. Yet that is one of the impressions that we on the outside have of why criminals are in prisons: so that they will get better. But do they? In effort to make society appear to function properly, we have to close our eyes to many contradictions. Ironically, many are found within the justice systems. We have all witnessed lawyers so hungry for money and advancement that they will protect criminals from incarceration at the cost of the next innocent victim. Another area of justice to which our eyes are closed are the prisons where convicted criminals do their reparation. Some main reasons why criminals are sent to prison are:

To separate a bully from his next victim — whether it be a robber from the jewelry store, a rapist from women, or a drug dealer from his addicted customers, etc. As punishment and revenge for the crimes a bully has already committed against his victims. To reform or correct the behavior and reintegrate a bully back into our respectable society. The first reason — to separate a criminal from his/her next victim — is the proper use of social seperation for keeping the public safe from further harm. The second, using imprisonment as a form of punishment and revenge is a misguided use of justice, because revenge turns the punisher into the bully possibly even the murderer, if a death sentence is carried out. So basically we have a load of people within a free society acting out violently with the same emotions as those which are causing our prisons to fill up with offenders. As you can see, the justice system is hypocritical.

My greatest concern, is how can incarcerating a criminal rehabilitate them; that being locked in a cage surrounded by other criminals can somehow lead one to become a better person. Imagine yourself trapped twenty four hours a day for a span of two to twenty years in a prep school populated only by those who have beaten, robbed, stolen, murdered or raped others out of rage, hatred and some other psychological imbalance. To add insult to injury, the world outside fears and hates you, maybe even wants to kill you. You have to work your way through the system by serving time so that you can eventually graduate to being released among those who fear and hate you because you are not an ex-con. Are prisons truly designed for rehabilitating criminals? How can a tense, selfish, survival-based atmosphere promote a more empathetic and emotionally balanced human? Given the constant negative reinforcement, it is almost impossible. In fact prisons so more by helping educate beginners in crime to become even better criminals. That’s a poor investment for the future of our community. A huge shift must take place if the Department of Corrections actually intends to correct the troubled one. We must find methods and programs which not only heal the wounds and troubled minds, but which helps them understand that crime begins with an attitude that we take toward others.

II. How has literature viewed this issue?

Most people may think of prisons as nothing more than facilities where criminals are incarcerated and deprived of their freedoms while serving a sentence that has been assigned as punishment for an illegal act they committed. While this is true, the concept of imprisonment is also intended to have a rehabilitative effect on inmates. The basic idea of rehabilitation through imprisonment is that a person who has been incarcerated will never want to be sent back to prison after they have been set free. It is hoped that an inmate’s experiences while locked up will leave such a lasting impression that a former prisoner will do whatever it takes to avoid a second term. Unfortunately, research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not serve to rehabilitate most inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime almost immediately. Many argue that most prisoners will actually learn new and better ways to commit crimes while they are locked up with their fellow convicts. They can also make connections and become more deeply involved in the criminal world.

To rehabilitate is basically to take something or someone that has gone bad and to bring them back to a useful and positive condition. In an effort to offer better rehabilitative services to the inmates, many prisons have begun providing psychiatrists to help deal with mental disorders and serious issues held by the prisoners. They also offer classroom settings in which inmates can learn to read and discover other means of legally advancing themselves. These methods are proven to have a positive effect on the prisoners. They have helped many to overcome a background with little or no education and encouraged some to straighten out their lives. Upon their release, prisoners who have stuck with these programs are given a better opportunity to succeed and to become law abiding citizens. Rehabilitation of prisoners is an extremely difficult effort. Inmates are segregated from the general public and forced to live in a society where crime is a way of life. For many, time spent behind bars will push them farther into a life of crime, but for others, the horrors of prison life and the lessons they learn there are enough to convince them to do anything possible to never become imprisoned again.

III. Why rehabilitation through punishment doesn’t work!

The media tries to portray the “new” prison as a way to rehabilitate prisoners, whether it is through education or drug rehabilitation; however, this is far from the truth for most. The first point where this fails is the prison system does not transition their prisoners back into the community. The prison system isolates offenders from their community and family. For violent offenders, yes this is what they are suppose to do but people who are needing drug rehabilitation need support from their family and community. Additionally, a person can find more drugs in prison than he or she can find out on the streets; however, at a higher price but they are still there. The second point where the rehabilitation programs fail is the prisoner has to want to change his or her life around and many have not come to that point yet. Additionally, many states offer time cuts for taking these rehabilitation programs and many prisoners take these programs just to get the time cuts.

I personally have family that has told me, “Yeah, I am going to go back out on the streets get my paper up (hustling) because that is the only way I can make money.” Which did not make any sense to me because now most prisons do have vocational schools or college courses available; however, depending on a person’s offense, it does not matter the education level, sometimes it is very hard to get a decent paying job once released from prison. Maybe a good solution for this problem is for a first time drug offender or a person who seems to suffer from a mental illness, put them in a rehabilitation center instead of a jail or prison. Prison only makes people angrier and teaches them how to be better criminals. I have seen people go into prison for white collar crimes and come out drug addicts and better criminals. The prison system is something that definitely needs to be re-worked and re-adjusted because it is definitely failing.

IV. How does this affect us socially?

The expectations that our society has for the criminal justice system is to punish and rehabilitate individuals who commit crime. Punishment and rehabilitation are also two of the four acknowledged objectives of the criminal justice system, with deterrence and incapacitation being the others. In the United States, punishment has always been the primary goal to achieve when dealing with individuals who commit acts of crime. Many theorists throughout history have argued which is more effective, punishment or rehabilitation. The effectiveness of punishment and rehabilitation has been analyzed to see the effects on victims and offenders and also the social and fiscal impact on our society. The Classical School of Criminology has proposed that punishment is used to create deterrence and the Positive School of Criminology uses the practice of rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.


Deterrence is one of the primary goals in the criminal justice system and it is described as special or specific deterrence and general deterrence. The purpose of special/specific deterrence is to instill fear on the offender so that they will not commit future crime. General deterrence is based on punishing offenders to instill fear in society, otherwise known as teaching society a lesson and showing the consequences of committing crime. Punishment has always been imposed based on the idea that it will deter individuals from committing crime or repeating criminal acts. Incapacitation has been the most common form of punishment, however research demonstrates that recidivism amongst convicted felons following release from prison is as high as 63% and that most prison inmates had arrest records and convictions prior to their current offense. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1989) Punishment through incarceration is a temporary fix to crime while the offender is confined.

The maximum sentence of life in prison and the death penalty has even been debated on whether they are deterrence to crime. There are so many underlying factors within the criminal justice system that may contribute to why punishment has not been as effective as anticipated such as the appeal process in death penalty cases and the length of time that an offender sits on death row. Others argue that rehabilitation is a more permanent fix in deterring crime. Rehabilitation through community supervision can have a more lasting effect on individuals and deter them from committing future crime if they learn how to adapt in society by gaining academic or trade skills. These programs can help offenders find employment and secure an important role in the community and give them a sense of being. Therapy is another form of rehabilitation needed to help deter individuals from committing future crime. Some examples of therapy include drug therapy to those offenders addicted to drugs and psychological counseling to those offenders who grew up in an abusive household.

Rehabilitation is based on creating a change in the criminal’s attitude or resources so that crime is neither a desired nor necessary activity. When an individual is sentenced to probation, it gives them the opportunity to remain self-supporting within the community and not using the taxpayer and states money to house them in a correctional facility.

Victim Impact

In many cases, victim rights tend to be overshadowed by the rights of the accused. The courts are obligated to give a defendant their Constitutional rights including the right to a speedy trial, the right to counsel, the right to confront witnesses, and due process under the law. Up until recently, victim’s rights were never recognized as an important role in the criminal justice system. In the past, victims and their families were often treated as inconveniences, ignored throughout trial proceedings, and sometimes even forced to stay out of the courtroom as the proceedings went on. These issues have caused many victims to feel neglected and even re-victimized by the courts. On October 30th, 2004, The Crime Victims’ Rights Act was signed into law by President Bush to guarantee rights to victims of federal crime. These rights include, to be reasonably protected from the accused offender and to receive reasonable and timely notice of any public proceeding involving the crime or of any public proceeding. (feinstein senate.gov/booklets, n.d) The majority of society, including victims of crime prefers swift punishment to rehabilitation through community supervision. According to the BJS Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, more than three-quarters of the public see punishment as the primary justification for sentencing. They also report that more than 70 percent believe that incapacitation is the only sure way to prevent future crimes, and more than three-quarters believe that the courts are too easy on criminals.

Public opinion supports the increased use of prisons to give criminals just desserts. When a victim or the victims’ family feels that their offender does not receive the appropriate sentence, it causes emotional stress and also financial strain when restitution is not implemented. Community supervision can also benefit victims in certain ways. When an offender is sentenced to intense supervision through probation, they have the ability to pay restitution through employment. Other forms of rehabilitation through community supervision may also benefit a victim or their families such as programs such as one that was introduced in my county. The program is a group of victims called the Victim Impact Panel who talk to offenders that are convicted of drunk driving. These individuals are brought face to face with victims and their family members of drunk driving. These programs have high hopes of deterring individuals from committing such acts.

Offender Impact

Punishment through incarceration has many effects on convicted criminals. Incarceration has many effects on the offender psychological well-being. When an offender is separated from their family, it causes severe depression. Supporters of rehabilitation versus punishment argue that sentencing offenders to incarceration hurt the family structure by contributing to single parenting. They also argue that punishment causes social disorientation, alienation, and also increases the risk of recidivism. When an offender is released from incarceration, they face social isolation, stigmatism, economic and employment challenges. Rehabilitation through community supervision eliminates many of these issues, such as the economic & employment factor. Probation allows offenders to remain with their families, continue working or find employment under close supervision.

Drug Courts

There are certain crimes that would benefit from rehabilitation more so than punishment, such as non-violent drug related. Criminals who commit acts of crimes to support their drug habit need treatment more than punishment. In many states, such as New York, Drug courts have been established. Drug courts represent the coordinated efforts of the judiciary, prosecution, defense bar, probation, law enforcement, mental health, social service, and treatment communities to actively and forcefully intervene and break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction, and crime. Drug courts quickly identify substance-abusing offenders and place them under strict court monitoring and community supervision, coupled with effective, long-term treatment services. The National Drug Court Institute describes the process that a participant as an intense regimen of substance abuse and mental health treatment, case management, drug testing, and probation supervision while reporting to regularly scheduled status hearings before a judge. In addition, drug courts may provide job skill training, family/group counseling, and many other life-skill enhancement services. Data consistently show that treatment, when completed is effective and loss more cost effective.

Social Impact upon Society

The social impact of punishment and rehabilitation varies from the increasing costs of correctional facilities to the disruption of families to the fear of criminals released into community. Society’s view plays a major role in the criminal justice system. Society’s belief’s in the “just desserts” theory has played a role in the courts. The push for mandatory sentencing has even entered political campaigns in response to the public. “Getting tough on crime” was the basis behind different mandatory sentencing practices. The increase of correctional facilities is also related to society’s impact on punishment versus rehabilitation. Fiscal Impact

The fiscal impact that punishment has on our country is phenomenal. It has been reported that it costs an average of $30,000 per year to house, feed, clothe, and supervise a prisoner. This figure does not include the costs of construction and other factors. Many rehabilitation programs have been introduced to not only help deter crime, but also to reduce the rising cost of punishment. Privatization of corrections has been also looked at as an effort to reduce the costs of punishment. Many states have also instituted alternatives to incarceration such as “boot camps” or “shock camps”. These programs are proven to be less costly than incarceration. The cost of shock incarceration in New York State has been estimated to be $10,000 less per year per prisoner than the cost of traditional incarceration (Punishment vs. rehabilitation: A Proposal for revising Sentencing Practices, September 1991) The use of intensive parole programs has been estimated to save taxpayers an estimated ten to thirteen thousand dollars per year compared to the cost of incarceration.

Overview of Punishment and Rehabilitation

Punishment and rehabilitation are a major part of the criminal justice system and will be effective in controlling crime if there is a way to incorporate the two factors to work together. Punishing and following up with rehabilitation through community supervision can be the source of helping deter crime. Punishment and community supervision should be based on the type of crime. If the appropriate sentence is issued upon an offender, it can help deter them from future criminal activity. Punishment vs. Rehabilitation in the Criminal Justice System

Works Cited

Cadigan, Brian. “Correcting Our Flawed Criminal Justice System, One Private Prison at a Time.” The Bottom Line UCSB. N.p., 11 May 2011. Web. 09 May 2013.

Dutta, Sunil. “How to Fix America’s Broken Criminal Justice System.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 30 Dec. 2010. Web. 07 May 2013. Vedantam, Shankar. “When Crime Pays: Prison Can Teach Some To Be Better Criminals.” NPR. NPR, 01 Feb. 2013. Web. 07 May 2013.

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StudyScroll. (2016). Punishment vs. Rehabilitation within the criminal justice system [Online]. Available at: https://studyscroll.com/punishment-vs-rehabilitation-within-the-criminal-justice-system-essay [Accessed: 5 December, 2023]

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"Punishment vs. Rehabilitation within the criminal justice system" StudyScroll, Mar 2, 2016. https://studyscroll.com/punishment-vs-rehabilitation-within-the-criminal-justice-system-essay

"Punishment vs. Rehabilitation within the criminal justice system" StudyScroll, 2-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: https://studyscroll.com/punishment-vs-rehabilitation-within-the-criminal-justice-system-essay. [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Punishment vs. Rehabilitation within the criminal justice system. [Online]. Available at: https://studyscroll.com/punishment-vs-rehabilitation-within-the-criminal-justice-system-essay [Accessed: 5-Dec-2023]

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