Prisons and Crime
THIS CHAPTER PROVIDES an overview of numerous issues that need to be considered in an examination of prison systems. These issues include exploring how philosophies, policies, politics, and economic factors drive the growth of prison systems, and whether there is a relationship between the growth of prisons and a reduction in crime. Before we can begin to examine whether a bigger prison system is better, we have to define what we mean when we ask whether one type of prison system is better than another.
For the purposes of this book, a better prison system is one that has a crime suppression effect, or one that reduces the level of crime in society. After all, isn't this why societies build and employ prison systems: to reduce crime? To be sure, crime reduction, whether through rehabilitation, deterrence, or incapacitation, has always provided the philosophical underpinnings for imprisonment (except if one adopts a pure retributive perspective, Newman, 1985). Indeed, if all society wanted to achieve was the simple punishment of criminal offenders, there would be better options or at least other alternatives to consider (Newman, 1985). In any event, the first criterion of a better prison system is that it should reduce crime. Thus, we can ask two questions about America's prison system. First, does the big prison system currently operating in America fulfill this goal? And second, has making the prison system bigger led to continual reductions in crime? We could add additional questions here, perhaps addressing the marginal gain in crime reduction that would occur for every 100 persons sent to prison. At this point, any additional questions can wait since asking and answering them is contingent on establishing the answer to the first two questions.
In addition to reducing crime, being better also implies that bigger prisons should do their task more efficiently than some other alternative.