How Rehabilitation Factors into the Prison System


What You Can Do

  • Donate to Vera Institute to improve prison conditions and resources, helping to reduce recidivism of prisoners
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The United States has a prison problem. The US comprises under 5% of the world’s total population, yet nearly 25% of the entire prison population [1]. This massive proportion of people in prison reflects a flaw in the justice system that can be traced back to just 40 years ago, with the advent of more punitive prisons.

The roots of the United States’ high incarceration rate stems from the “law and order” and “truth in sentencing” policies enacted in the 1980s. Shifts in sentencing and correctional patterns began in the 1970s as an attempt to control crime. These policies grew in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, which oversaw a series of changes leading the nation to follow a “tough on crime” mindset [2]. Key among these changes were mandatory minimum sentencing laws, habitual offending laws, limitations on parole, and tougher and longer punishments. Most prominently, three-strike laws and “Truth in sentencing” policies require prisoners to serve more time in jail. Both the Bush and Clinton administrations continued anti-crime policies and efforts to maximize punishment. Attorney General William Barr is a strong proponent of toughening America’s sentences and in 1992 issued The Case for More Incarceration [3], detailing how imprisoning more people will reduce the number of crimes [4]. 

As a result, the prison population has grown by 700% since 1970 and now costs taxpayers 80 billion dollars per year [1]. “Tough on crime” policies are intended to scare potential criminals and deter repeated crimes. However, they do not accomplish this goal, as shown by the high incarceration and recidivism rates of the US. Instead, alternative methods are needed to prevent criminals from reoffending.

With one of the highest recidivism rates in the world, the US demonstrates that longer prison sentences and harsh conditions do not deter crime. Based on a study of prisoners released in 2005 throughout 29 states, 55.1% of prisoners will be rearrested and convicted within a five-year span of their primary release. This statistic includes convictions for new crimes as well as returns due to the violation of conditions of release. In both cases, however, the prisoner is found guilty and subsequently put back in prison [5]. The alarming rate in which over half of all people convicted of a crime will end up convicted again is a clear indicator that the punitive model of justice is failing. Compare this statistic against Norway, for instance. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, at a mere 25% [6]. This number measures reincarceration only. When you factor in rearrests to Norway’s recidivism rate, it actually drops to 20%. Adding rearrests to the United States’ figure skyrockets it to 76.6% [7]. This disparity is undoubtedly rooted in differing philosophies of incarceration. 

Prisons today have a few accepted purposes. Namely, deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation, or reform, focuses on helping the prisoners so that they no longer commit crimes and can function as members of society [8]. Yet, in the United States, there is an overwhelming emphasis on punishment as the primary goal of carceral institutions. In stark opposition to the United States, prisons in Norway rely on the theory of restorative justice, focusing on rehabilitation. Clearly, this method works. 

The purpose of restorative justice is to set positive actions in motion to repair the damage the crime caused, rather than just punish people for their wrongdoing. These programs work by involving both the victim and the offender. Together, they find a solution to repair the harm done. The concept works with incapacitation and offers an alternative to retribution. Often, restorative justice includes victim assistance, dialogue and conferencing, restitution, and community service. The end result is that the offender takes responsibility and fixes the harm they caused. Not only does this philosophy resolve the damages, but it actively works to prevent future occurrences, making it far more effective than punitive action [9]. 

For example, Halden Prison is a maximum-security prison located in Norway without conventional security: it has no bars on the windows, no barbed-wire fences, and no electric walls. Instead, it offers classes, provides therapy, and promotes friendships with the guards. With the newly learned skills like plumbing or marketing, convicts do not have to resort back to a life of crime when they finish their sentences. They can acclimate to society and live normal, functional lives. For comparison, Norway’s incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people. The United States sits at ten times that number: 707 per 100,000 people [7]. The answer is not to treat people like animals. Focusing on rehabilitation and preparing convicts to properly function in society reduces the number of criminals. Simple things, like humane living spaces, resources to get a GED, and life skills training can easily stop criminals from reoffending by giving them a purpose to avoid crime.

In an interview, one of Norway’s prison governors explains: “In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings” [7].

On average, incarceration costs $33,274 per prisoner per year. This number skyrockets to $69,355 per prisoner every year in the state of New York [10]. For comparison, the median household income in New York was $64,894 [11]. This means that a prisoner in New York costs more than the average New Yorker makes every year. Furthermore, this $69,000 gets wasted as it is vastly ineffective at doing the very thing for which it is intended: deterring crime. The prison system needs reworking. If the system changes to prioritize reform over punishment, the prison population will decrease along with high expenses.

As testament to the fact that the Nordic system can function in the United States, one prison in North Dakota has converted and seen promising results in just a few short years. In 2015, the Missouri River Correctional Center underwent a change of its prison system. The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) director and DOCR director of correctional practices took a tour of Norway’s Halden prison. Inspired by the results they saw of reforming criminals, they restructured their prison system accordingly. So far, “North Dakota prison officials have noticed large declines in violence, threats against the staff, and the use of force by staff” [12]. Additionally, after the publication of a report in 2018 just 3 years after the system was established, North Dakota has seen a 6.5% decrease in its prison population [13]. Though some success may be attributed to lawmakers’ actions in terms of sentencing regulations, the reformation of the prison system stands as a testament to the effects of reformative justice and state officials are optimistic that the positive results will continue [14].

Though some may claim that a Nordic prison system would never work in the United States, Norway again demonstrates that such a transition is possible. In the 1970s and 80s, Norway also struggled with a high prison rate like that of the US, related in part to both nation’s undertaking of a “war on drugs.” However, in 1978, Norway’s parliament voted to view new alternatives to imprisonment, and in 1998 the explicit focus of Norway’s system became restorative justice [15]. Since then, Norway’s prison system has become regarded as one of the best in the world, demonstrating that it is possible for the US to pull its justice system together and effectively deter crime [16]. There is hope for the United States yet.

Works Cited