Prison, Limiting to Violent Offenders

Last updated: March 8, 2019

Are prisons appropriate for non-violent offenders, or should they be given alternative punishments?

Prison, Limiting to Violent Offenders
Yes because...

Non-violent offenders can be adequately punished by other means: sentencers have a wide range of opt...

Non-violent offenders can be adequately punished by other means: sentencers have a wide range of options. It is often argued that sentences should be proportionate to the crime committed: more serious crimes should receive more serious sentences. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, sentences are intended to convey moral censure and assist offenders in considering the implications of their actions. Secondly, hard treatment is needed to give individuals a prudential reason not to offend. Offenders are less likely to respond to the moral message if they think that they have been treated unfairly or that others who commit more serious crimes get less severe sentences. However, this does not require the availability of prison. Heavier fines, longer community sentences or curfews can be given to those who commit more serious offences.
No because...
Prison is necessary to punish some non-violent offenders proportionately: for those who commit serious fraud involving large sums of money, or who steal property with a high value, a community sentence may not be a sufficient punishment. Property offences can often be more serious than minor violent offences and excluding the option of prison for the former undermines the idea of proportionality. This not only means that non-violent offenders are not sentenced adequately, but also that violent offenders may feel that the system is unfair to them. Furthermore, the public may not feel that non-violent offenders are being punished sufficiently, undermining trust in the justice system. There is an element of class here as well – many serious non-violent offenders are middle-class “white collar” criminals whose fraud has impoverished tens of thousands of savers or investors, while violent offenders are more likely to be working class.

Prison, Limiting to Violent Offenders
Yes because...

Prisons harm offenders: all the available studies suggest that those who are given a custodial sente...

Prisons harm offenders: all the available studies suggest that those who are given a custodial sentence are more likely to reoffend than those given a fine or a community sentence, all other things being equal. There are good reasons to support this. Prisons isolate offenders from their families and friends so that when they are released their social networks tend to be made up largely of those whom they met in prison. As well as sharing ideas, prisoners may validate each others’ criminal activity. Employers are less willing to employ those who have been to prison. Such circumstances may reduce the options available to past offenders and make future criminal behaviour more likely. Rehabilitation becomes more difficult. In addition, rates of self-harm and abuse are alarmingly high within both men’s and women’s prisons. This suggests that imprisoning offenders unnecessarily is harmful both for the offenders themselves and for society as a whole.
No because...
Prisons can provide an opportunity to develop important skills: it is especially clear in the case of non-violent offenders that criminal behaviour often stems from a perceived lack of alternatives. Offenders often lack educational qualifications and skills. Prisons can provide an opportunity to develop necessary skills for future employment through the provision of courses and education. Not all prisons have great provision at the moment, especially with overcrowding in a number of countries, but the solution here is to ensure courses are available, rather than not sending people to prison.

Prison, Limiting to Violent Offenders
Yes because...

Prisons should be reserved for those who are dangerous: in addition to the harms above, prisons are ...

Prisons should be reserved for those who are dangerous: in addition to the harms above, prisons are much more expensive than other sentences. They should therefore be used simply to incapacitate those who commit violent offences as these individuals are a greater threat to society. Violent offences are more traumatic for the victim and are less likely to stem from unemployment, poverty or a perceived lack of opportunity than property offences such as theft.
No because...
Non-violent offenders can be a danger to society: those who commit property offences, particularly repeat offenders, cause considerable harm to society. A victim of burglary (where the offender breaks into a home to steal items) may be just as traumatised as the victim of an assault. Drug dealers may never use violence but they can ruin hundreds of lives. It is sometimes necessary to incapacitate non-violent offenders too to effectively prevent them from reoffending.

Prison, Limiting to Violent Offenders
Yes because...

Prison is not necessary as a deterrent: it is often argued that prison is a necessary deterrent for ...

Prison is not necessary as a deterrent: it is often argued that prison is a necessary deterrent for both violent and non-violent offenders. There are two ideas here. Firstly, the possibility of being sent to prison is thought to make people less likely to commit crimes. Secondly, those who have been to prison are less likely to reoffend because they don’t want to go back. However, the empirical studies (such as the Cambridge Study on Deterrence) show that offenders are much more affected by the likelihood of being caught than by the sentence attached to a particular crime – so deterrence is a policing, not a sentencing issue. A criminal record and the consequent difficulties, for example in the employment market, are an enormous disincentive for most people. In addition, for a prison sentence to deter people, they have to be aware that prison is the likely sentence; most members of the public are unaware of the sort of sentences received for crimes such as theft or burglary. Finally, many crimes are committed impulsively and deterrence has little impact here.
No because...
Prison is a necessary deterrent: the possibility of being sent to prison does affect whether individuals commit crimes. Whilst violent crimes might be committed in the heat of the moment, property crimes are often committed by individuals who have weighed up the chance of being caught and possible sentence, and still think that they have more to gain by stealing. Such individuals are more likely to commit crimes if prison is not available as an option to the sentencers. Furthermore, there are a considerable number of non-violent offenders who commit further crimes after receiving a fine or community sentence. Where the alternatives were an insufficient deterrent, prison may be necessary for repeat offenders. Finally, some offenders may try to avoid paying fines or completing their community sentence; in such cases the threat of prison is a necessary sanction to ensure that lesser punishments are respected.


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