Social Perspective on Crime, Rehabilitation and Punishment

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Why did it fail? A psychological Explanation.
  • Rehabilitation Approach


Crime is one of the most concerning issues in today’s society. A variety of factors have led to an increase in criminal activities and governments all across the world are trying to combat the same. But there is no particular way to control it since every criminal has a different story. Some commit crimes to take revenge, some for money, some are just psychopaths, and there would be many more reasons. Hence the ways to deal with each of them will also be different. The idea of dealing crime with human psychology has been an ongoing debate. Researchers have been working on different strategies that could prove useful to lower down the crime rate. Some methods (to deal with criminals) involve punishment while others suggest rehabilitation/reinforcement as an option. A need for a proper strategy is essential, else governments will keep draining money in the wrong direction.

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In its attempts to fight crime, incarceration has been the U.S. primary policy, at least from the beginning of the 1970s when the American public began demanding more punitive sanctions for offenders. This was popularly called “get-tough” strategy. With the incorporation of this strategy, certain views became important. First was, “just deserts”, which included the belief that rather than crime prevention the purpose of sanctioning was the delivery of a penalty whose severity was proportionate to the harm done by the offender. Incapacitation, specific deterrence, general deterrence, and rehabilitation were not simply irrelevant in the pursuit of enhanced justice, but perhaps contributed to injustice by interfering with the delivery of just desert. And the second was the promotion of the fact that rehabilitation had failed to demonstrate that programming could reduce reoffending. The “get-tough” strategy went on to become more cruel and severe with many states removing their paroling authorities. This system, at times, lead to inhuman treatment. Further spreading the notion that criminals had no right to be a part of the society (just desert). With the increase in the incarceration rate, the number of prisoners increased leading to a whole new set of problems for the government. Crowded prisons served as a breeding ground for both mental and physical illness. To add to the worse, the war on drugs and crime, turned nothing but a war on race. After drug arrests were made mandatory, a large number black (Afro-Americans) were put to prison. Drugs have remain steady but not the arrests of Black. In a larger picture, a huge financial cost was added to government expenses. The families of the prisoners were also facing financial hardships as they supported the prisoner in hope that he/she would be free again.

Why did it fail? A psychological Explanation.

Psychology fairly explains the reason behind this failure. Punishment affects a person psychologically and can have different impacts in different conditions. At times if can even have a reverse effect and hence the timing and intensity of punishment needs to be monitored. According to Andrews and Bonta (2006), 

  1. Punishment must be at maximum intensity. A mild one can lead tolerance while an intense one might be unjust in some cases (eg. for first time offenders).
  2. Punishment must be immediate. A delay might induce a reinforced/rewarded criminal behavior.
  3. Punishment must be consistently applied. Unless the offender is punished for each and every criminal action, which is highly unlikely, criminal behavior will be rewarded.
  4. Opportunities to escape or access alternative rewards must be blocked. If delayed, rewarding behavior can lead to running away or indulging in a lesser risk crime.

This does explain when a punishment would “work” or needs to be delivered to the subject. They do not address the characteristics of the person that may require some alteration. A person reinforce behavior after a certain period of time. Many offenders think they won’t be caught again. Maximum punishment can act in a reverse manner. Thus, a more promising strategy was needed. Psychologists started the examining/ studying the effects of incarceration and developing rehabilitation strategies.

Rehabilitation Approach

A number of studies were made to examine the behavior of juvenile offenders as they were undergoing rehabilitation. A significant reduction in recidivism was observed and hence the concept resurfaced again. The turn of events made an impactful development in the theory of a psychology of criminal conduct which for years was focussed on the causes of crime and not the criminal behaviour. Psychology was rediscovered as a correctional treatment. Risk-Need-Responsivity principle was proposed and used to recommend treatment for offenders. The RNR model worked as follows:

  1. Risk principle: high- to moderate-risk individuals should be prioritized for more structured and more intensive treatment and control programs to maximize outcomes; low-risk individuals should be prioritized when they have high criminogenic needs. Thus addresses who needs to be treated.
  2. Need principle: changeable factors that drive involvement in criminogenic needs are assessed. Thus addresses what should be treated.
  3. Responsivity principle: the yield from programming is maximized when treatments and controls responsive to the risk and needs of individual offenders. Addresses how the intervention needs to be done.

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