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Is imprisonment the solution to crime? With soaring crime rates being made up mostly of re-offenders, people are questioning the effectiveness of prisons and whether there are viable options to replace or work in conjunction with them.

There seems to be confusion as to what exactly prison is for. Prison director, Katherine

Soames, has mixed feelings about her establishment’s purpose. “Some say prison is for punishment, but prison is an oblique and expensive way of punishing people. Heavy fines would surely give back more to society than having them languish in a cell. Some say deterrence is the main factor, but there is little evidence of such an effect. Hardened criminals do not fear prison and short prison sentences are probably counterproductive in that they operate as ‘schools for crime’. As for rehabilitation, prisons stigmatise people, sever family ties and make it more difficult to get employment on release.”

Another reason sometimes given for putting people in prison is retribution, the argument being that people should ‘have to pay for what they have done’. Unfortunately, this often penalises people for the consequences of their behaviour, regardless of whether harm was intended. If a driver falls asleep at the wheel and causes the death of ten people, he has no more criminal intent than if he hit a tree and injured himself. He is not dangerous after his driving licence has been taken away, but a man was recently sentenced to five years in prison for this. Prosecutor Angela Martin comments on this case. “While prison might please the relatives of those killed, it is unnecessary for the protection of society and expensive to the taxpayer. I believe the only proper use of prison is for the containment of dangerous criminals, including violent men and serial burglars who cannot be reformed.”

Can prison be of use at rehabilitation? Ministry of Justice executive, Colin Case, explains some facts. “Recidivism figures give little cause for optimism regarding the effectiveness of short- or medium-term prison sentences. Ministry of Justice figures show that a crime is committed every 10 minutes by a criminal on bail.” Other figures support Case. In the UK for example, one-third of those cautioned or convicted last year had at least 15 previous convictions and only ten per cent were first time offenders. One 66-year-old shoplifter had 330 convictions over fifty years and was still released immediately with a short prison sentence, because he had already served half of it while awaiting trial.

Can we predict in advance which criminals are likely to reoffend? Researchers have attempted to do so. Recently, a study measured impulse control while monitoring brain activity with an MRI. Error-related responses in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) indicative of impulsiveness were predictive of rearrest within the four years following release from prison. Those with low activity in the ACC were about twice as likely to be recidivists. The researcher in charge of the study, Sophie Meaker, comments on the results. “While our study gives us some data to help guide our actions with regard to reoffending, they are still not accurate enough for determining life-altering decisions with respect to individuals.”

One possible more humane alternative to prison and one of the best is community service.

This has elements of punishment (deprivation of freedom and some degree of humiliation), reparation (payback to the community) and rehabilitation (it maintains community ties and promotes a work ethic). Jason Howell, a judge in Australia, is a fan. “It is better than short-term prison sentences at reducing reoffending and allows monitoring without a prison sentence. It can take the pressure off the prison system, yet still enforce justice.”

Another answer to the over-crowding and ineffectiveness of prison is to turn to electronic tagging, which is the attachment of a transmitter to an offender, usually to the ankle. A control centre can monitor the whereabouts and movements of anyone wearing a tag. This can and ought to be used as a sentence in itself or part of an early release system. It can enforce many of the benefits of prison by requiring offenders to be at home for certain specified hours of the day or night, without incurring the expense of running the prison.

John Dawson, a US child psychologist, explains one key benefit. “Electronic tagging can be of immeasurable benefit for young offenders. Instead of being sent to a young offenders’ institute, where they might mix and learn bad habits from other offenders, they can remain in society with their families, and still be monitored. Many young people are very scared by the repercussions of what they have done and keeping them away from negative role models can be enough to allow them to avoid a life of crime.”

Research has suggested that electronic tagging would create significant monetary savings, although so far, conclusions have only been based on extrapolating the results of limited trials. There has also been some criticism. Activist Tom Wilkinson argues that tagging should be illegal. “Tagging clearly contravenes a couple of basic human rights, such as the right not to undergo degrading treatment or the right to a private family life. Tagged prisoners have frequently complained of being stigmatised and treated like animals.” Parole officer, Alison Headley, opposes tagging for almost an opposite reason. “Tagging is a soft option and one that most prisoners, especially re-offenders, would prefer. It does not punish sufficiently or effectively and does not discourage re-offending.” When taking this into account, it seems that tagging is not a suitable measure for re-offenders.

Whatever one’s point of view, finding the right solution to the punishment system in today’s society is still open to debate. Prison will continue to be widely used, but there will be constant efforts to find alternatives that can punish effectively in an economic way.

Questions 1 – 7 

Look at the following statements (questions 1 - 7) and the list of people below. Match each statement with the correct person’s initials.

Write the correct initials in boxes 1 - 7 on your answer sheet.

1.There is still not enough evidence to understand why criminals reoffend.

2.Prison should still be used for violent criminals.

3.Electronic tagging would often be the punishment of choice for many criminals.

4.Prison can severely affect family relationships for offenders.

5.Community service can be more effective than brief prison sentences at stopping people committing crimes after release.

6.Electronic tagging can be inhumane.

7.Reoffending statistics show that prison is ineffectual as a deterrent to committing crime.


KS                             Katherine Soames

AM                             Angela Martin

CC                             Colin Case

SM                             Sophie Meaker

JH                             Jason Howell

TW                            Tom Wilkinson

AH                             Alison Headley