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Correctional Mental Health - Theories of Punishment

Posted Feb 20 2009 7:05pm

Prison As I noted a few weeks back, I am currently teaching a course on correctional psychology, and I am discussing all sorts of interesting topics that I thought would also make for interesting (I hope) blog posts. I thought I’d start with a post for today that addresses a rather simple question - Why do we punish people? And in the context of this thread, how does punishment fit into the nature and purpose of the correctional system?

The simple answer to the question, “Why punish?” is usually something like, “Well, they broke a rule,” or “They did something they weren’t supposed to.” The more in-depth answer, however, is far more complex, and includes the application of theories from a number of disciplines, including psychology. In general, there are four primary reasons for administering punishment to an individual, to include incarceration as one form of punishment:

1) Retribution - this is simply the idea that we punish someone “because they deserve it.” This is an old concept, going way, way, way back; think “an eye for an eye” to see how far back this concept dates. Early legal thinking relied heavily on the idea that someone who causes harm ought to be harmed, though the concept has evolved, over time, to consider “proportionality” when administering punishment for this purpose (i.e. we don’t send someone to the gas chamber because of a parking ticket). Punishment based on retribution has little relationship to any psychological thinking, or any forward thinking in general - the impact is not considered, nor are any benefits.

2) Deterrence - Within this concept, punishment is administered with an eye towards prevention of future harmful/criminal behaviors. There is specific deterrence, in which punishing an individual for an offense is thought to deter that individual from engaging in that offense again. This thinking is grounded in behaviorism - punishing a behavior through negative consequences reduces the likelihood of the behavior being engaged in again. There is also general deterrence, in which it is thought that punishing an individual for an offense will provide a lesson to the public at large; they will be less likely to engage in that same behavior as a result of seeing the perpetrator punished. Does this work? It depends - on the severity of the punishment, the swiftness of the punishment, the type of offense we are talking about, and individual characteristics.

3) Rehabilitation - or, as Stanton Samenow would say, “Habilitation.” This is the idea that individuals are incarcerated for the purpose of providing interventions designed to curb criminal lifestyles. The expectation is that the correctional system is designed in order to address the various issues within the prison population that result in criminal behavior. Primarily, we are talking about education, training, and counseling. Does this work? Again, it depends on several factors. However, research has shown that recidivism can be reduced with certain groups, particularly as techniques in assessment, treatment, and monitoring improve.

4) Incapacitation - this is the idea that individuals can’t re-offend if they are incarcerated; it is prevention via incarceration. This can be achieved in various ways, including locking everyone up for the same amount of time, regardless of individual differences; identifying higher risk offenders and choosing to lock those individuals up longer than others; or identifying individuals within certain subgroups of crime that have higher re-offense rates, and giving them longer sentences.

In the 1980s and 90s, this incapacitation approach gained a lot of steam, with the increase of prisons, “three strikes” laws, etc. In addition, the approach is effective, within a narrow view of the issue; crime will drop if more offenders are incarcerated. However, the flip side (or sides) are problematic: 1) false positives - general application of sentences without examination of data leads to the incarceration of individuals who are relatively low risk for recidivism - this helps no one and it is 2) expensive! Correctional systems cost a ton, particularly if you are housing individuals who likely would not re-offend, and could otherwise be offering something positive to society, and 3) is not an efficient use of available resources - there are only so many staff, so many dollars, etc. If we have sound data on which to make rational decisions (i.e. not paroling people because they “found God” or wrote children’s books, but based on scientific knowledge), we could allocate correctional resources far more efficiently - incapacitate the violent, repeat offender high in psychopathy; provide mental health treatment to the mentally ill offender; and provide programming to the individual with a high potential for rehabilitation.

Obviously, this is in fact how the correctional system is run, but trends tend to push the system to emphasize certain areas more than others. Personally, my sense is that the fiscal issues many states are facing, along with the overcrowding, will push correctional departments to swing back towards rehabilitation, along with smarter forms of incapacitation. For example, there will be more liberal use of community corrections and half-way houses as technology continues to improve, facilitating better monitoring via GPS. If a guy is relatively low risk for violence, has job skills, and is likely to cooperate with conditions required of community placement, why not let him serve in a less restrictive environment, contribute to society, attend therapy in the community (if necessary), and save the taxpayers some money to boot?  Hopefully this post will kick off an interesting thread of posts related to the provision of mental health services in correctional facilities.

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