Dr Hannah Maslen is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford. This means she works at Oxford University. Her job is to be very curious about the world and let everyone about what she finds out, a lot like you do in the Burnet News Club!
She has an interest in crime and punishment and has written academic papers on the same issues you are all discussing in the Burnet News Club. She read what you had to say about prisons, punishment and rehabilitation, find out what she had to say in response.
If rehabilitation is thought to be so effective, why are most prisons still run with a focus on punishment? Do the people in charge need more money to change things or do they need to change their thinking first?
By SA, Chiltern Way Academy
Hi SA. You are really raising the question of the purpose of prisons and the criminal justice system, which is hotly debated!
Whilst there are studies showing some promise for the effects of rehabilitative approaches, their effectiveness varies greatly from person to person. Often it depends on the particular situation and characteristics of the offender. It will not be effective in all, or even most cases.
Also, in the UK and many other countries, rehabilitation is not the only aim of criminal justice institutions. Laws in the UK state that criminal justice serves multiple aims, including giving the offender the deserved punishment, acting as a deterrent to offending and protecting society from offenders who are particularly dangerous. These aims would not be served by a purely rehabilitative response to offending.
It costs a lot of money to keep someone in prison – more than many rehabilitation programmes. The continued focus on punishment is partly because those in charge think that’s what prisons should do with their money. People do argue about whether such hard treatment can be justified, it might be that you disagree at a fundamental level about which aims prisons should serve.
We at Edward Heneage think that prisoners should have the opportunity to start a new life and a new job after prison.We can do this by rehabilitation and allowing them to learn new skills, teaching them to accept consequences and showing them the right path to follow.
The Burnet News Club Members at Edward Heneage.
Hi Burnet News Club Members – I tend to agree with you. A common idea amongst those who justify prisons and punishment is that once an offender has served her sentence, she should then be able to rejoin the community: she has “done her time”. For example, if there is a concern that it would be impossible for an ex-offender to rejoin a community, they are given a new identity.
Equipping prisoners with skills and the confidence to pursue a law-abiding life when they are released is more likely to help them avoid reoffending than if they are given no better prospects.
Prison serves multiple purposes. It is both possible and desirable that prison can act as a deterrent and as punishment, whilst also providing opportunities for rehabilitation.
Should prison be a rewarding experience?
By RavenclawReporter, Malcolm Arnold Academy
Hi RavenclawReporter. This question gets to the heart of what punishment is meant to do. The answer will depend on what is meant by ‘rewarding’. It is unlikely that many people would think that prison, as a form of punishment, is meant to be fun and pleasant. If it were, it would not act as a disincentive to committing crime. However, there are writers on punishment who think that prison is supposed to prompt the offender to reflect on her crime, whom it might have hurt, and why she shouldn’t do it again. If this reflection occurs alongside gaining skills or rehabilitative treatment, it might be that the offender leaves in a better state than when she went in.
It would be idealistic to think that this is a common experience of prison, I’m sure it is not. But, for those who emerge with a resolve to fix the things in their lives that draw them to crime, prison might have been a rewarding experience.
People who are sent to prison should have the chance to have a good life because having them locked up like animals and being punished is painful for the family’s of the prisoner and is cruel. Even if they were bad, they are still people. I don’t really agree that people should go to jail for about 2-3 months if they pass the speed limit or something not that serious. What I think is that they should just get a huge fine or to do community service; but this is my opinion anyway. However, I agree that if they do something more serious like murder, stealing someone’s personal info and selling people illegal drugs they should go to jail for about 4-5 years.
By Blogger 123, Arnhem Wharf Primary School
Hi Blogger 123. Your compassionate sentiments are widely shared, I’m sure. Very few people believe that prisons should be cruel and degrading places. There are basic human rights which prisoners have, just like everyone else. Prisons in the UK and many other countries are set up to try to protect these.
Prisoners would not be tortured or prevented from receiving medical treatment, for example. In addition, there are established legal routes for prisoners to raise a complaint about prison conditions and the treatment they receive.
That being said, prison is supposed to be a punishment and act as a deterrent to committing crimes. It must involve some degree of discomfort – it can’t be too fun or pleasant.
In fact, the hierarchy of punishments you suggest is more or less what happens. Less serious offences, such as speeding or a minor theft, are punished by fines or community service. The more serious crimes, such as a serious assault, start to attract prison sentences. These sentences might be for a number of months rather than years. The most serious offences, like murder, can attract very long prison sentences of many years. Your comments suggest that you might think there should be a lower cap on the length of sentences.
In cases such as those you describe involving stealing food or medicine, the offender’s situation and the ‘necessity’ of the theft will be taken into account by the judge. In some cases the judge might decide that their circumstances make the offense less serious, and the punishment is either dismissed or reduced.
Personally I think rehabilitation is an excellent idea. Punishing someone for being a drug addict won’t really benefit them however, if you guide and support them it’s more likely for them to give up on drugs.
By Arsenal’s smashing blogger, Upton Cross primary school
Hi Arsenal’s smashing blogger. You are right that rehabilitative treatment can be more effective than simple ‘hard treatment’ in some cases. Drug related offending provides a prime example where rehabilitation can be quite effective. If the offender is willing to engage with rehabilitative treatment, they are more likely to improve their wellbeing and steer clear of future crime.
Depending on the seriousness of the crime, a prison sentence might still be given to a person with drug addiction. This is because prisons can force prisoners to go through an addiction treatment programme.
A prison sentence might be dismissed but if the offender fails to follow an addiction treatment programme they may be given a prison sentence.
Are people who commit a crime really criminals?
By Familylovedrl, Barnhill Community High School
Hi Familylovedrl. It depends on what you mean by ‘criminal’. Using a purely legal definition, a criminal is someone who has been convicted of breaking the criminal law. So except in regrettable cases where there has been a mistake, all people who commit crimes are criminals. We might wonder, however, whether all people who commit criminal offences are somehow ‘destined’ to be criminals – as if this is their identity. Perhaps this is what you’re interested in.
Here, I would say that no one is destined to be a criminal. Engaging in criminal acts is associated with a huge number of factors. None of these factors make it certain that the person will commit crimes. These factors include:
- genetic dispositions (say, to aggression)
- social circumstances and pressures
- behavioural role models and influences
- and of course individuals’ choices.
There are many other factors that are associated with criminal offending, but certainly no one is born a criminal.
How can we give criminals a chance to improve?
By Chocoloatecake, Gigithesupersleeper and Gigitheflexiblegymnast, Mission Grove Primary School
Hi Chocoloatecake, Gigithesupersleeper and Gigitheflexiblegymnast. As well as serving as a punishment, spending time in prison is supposed to give the offender a chance to reflect on what they have done and what changes they might need to make in their life to avoid doing it again. Prisons in many countries also offer educational and creative courses. Some prisoners will be required or offered to undergo rehabilitative treatment programmes, for things like aggression management and drug addiction.
It is very important that these positive aspects of prison life are invested in by governments and pursued seriously by those tasked with delivering them. This will give prisoners the best chance of being able to improve themselves in a number of ways, many of which will be directly beneficial for their own wellbeing.
I think that prisoners should be given tough punishments because if prison was nicer prisoners wouldn’t be bothered about going back. Therefore, they might commit another crime.
By Icecream1 Boomerang , Wold Academy
Hi Icecream1 Boomerang. Deterrence is certainly one of the main aims of punishment. You are right to note that prisons would not serve this deterrent function if they were too pleasant. However, I would argue that a balance has to be struck between making sure prison is not a desirable place to be and making sure prisoners are treated with sufficient dignity. Prisoners have the right to be treated in humane ways, such as having basic amenities provided and access to medical treatment.
It is likely that most people would find the idea of prison off-putting. Even with sufficiently humane conditions, you still lose your freedom. This would be enough of a deterrent for most people.
Prison should be a place of rehabilitation because punishment doesn’t teach people to become a better person. If you keep people for longer they’ll do it again when they get out. If you keep them forever, they’ll try and find a way to get out. If you teach them to become a better and law abiding person and you give them a second chance, you can give them more time to learn and this doesn’t break up family connections like the punitive way.
By Harry Potter Fan, Wold Academy
Hi Harry Potter Fan. Rehabilitation treatment comes in many forms. It is principally aimed at changing the offender’s behaviour or circumstances which seem to be related to the criminal offending.
So, rehabilitation might for example, help the offender with managing anger or dysfunctional thinking patterns. Rehabilitation might also help her with a drug addiction if this seems to be linked to commission of crimes.
Many offenders are offered rehabilitative treatments, but for others there is no treatment programme that would be appropriate. For example, this is the case when there is no clear characteristic – such as an addiction or anger problems – that seems to be leading to the offending. Perhaps you have in mind a less targeted programme of reform, which is a concept that is often associated with the aims of punishment. The big question is what strategies will be effective in achieving the reform of offenders. If offenders are unwilling to engage, the prospect for teaching them to become a better person against their will may be limited. Such programmes, if they were to be successful, are likely to take time and some time in prison away from families may be necessary.
I agree that we should be forward looking in our approach to criminal punishment, particularly regarding offenders’ lives when they leave prison. We should also consider the effects that long prison sentences have on partners and people dependent on the offender.