820 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary by volunteer Hannah Lee
Summary: A review of 116 studies finds, consistent with many earlier studies, that imprisonment does not reduce crime.
Canada’s current government often claims to be ‘evidence based’. Yet in at least one major policy area, criminal justice, our policies and practices are often detached from the evidence. Not that previous governments were any better in this field.
The typical response to crime, and especially to very dramatic and unusual crimes, is to call for more policing and harsher punishment. Yet a recent analysis of many years of research on this topic shows once again that putting more people in prison and keeping them there longer does not reduce crime, even if it may satisfy the thirst among some people for retribution.
Prison does not prevent crime
A recent meta-analysis (which is a specific kind of review of research, employing advanced statistical methods) of 116 studies concludes that ‘custodial sanctions have no effect on reoffending or slightly increase it when compared with the effects of noncustodial sanctions such as probation. This finding is robust regardless of variations in methodological rigor, types of sanctions examined, and sociodemographic characteristics of samples.’
The authors also tested this proposition in a variety of different ways – for example with different kinds of crimes, more or less harsh conditions, or over different amounts of time, only to conclude that ‘we find no conditions under which custody reduces reoffending.’
This finding, the authors point out, is consistent with many earlier studies. ‘All sophisticated assessments of the research have independently reached the same conclusion.’ This one is just newer and takes in more studies with more total evidence. The high level of agreement in conclusions among many studies done over many years by many different people using differing methods is a strong basis for confidence that these results do indeed tell us the true story. The evidence has become clearer and clearer that imprisonment does not make us safer and may in fact do the opposite. Or, as the authors put it, ‘Incarceration cannot be justified on the grounds it affords public safety by decreasing recidivism.’
Why prison doesn’t work
Why don’t prisons perform as we expect? That is a harder question to answer, and there are various competing explanations without enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions. Time in prison makes it harder for people to gain employment and find housing once released, foreclosing positive options for living. People in prison are primarily spending time with other people convicted of committing crimes. Most prisons provide very little opportunity for prisoners to do anything positive or useful; they are poor places for people to gain education credentials or job skills. Time in prison can destroy people’s social networks, leaving them more isolated when they are released. And it is important to remember that the vast majority of people who are imprisoned will be released at some point, usually in a worse state than when they entered.
Creates costs rather than preventing them
The Criminal Code in Canada makes it clear that one of the main purposes for sending people to jail is deterrence. Yet the evidence tells us that prison fails in this purpose, in particular compared to other available alternatives that do not involve locking people up. These must be compared to the huge costs of operating a large jail and prison system. Part of that cost is to the public; in Canada we spend about $5 billion annually on jails and prisons – which is double the amount that will go into the new bilateral health agreements with provinces to cover areas including mental health.
To put it another way, Statistics Canada reports that as a country we spent more than twice as much last year on Public Order and Safety (which also includes police and courts) as we did on Environmental Protection, and that the former increased more rapidly than the latter!
But there is another set of costs for imprisonment, and these are paid not just by prisoners but by their families as well. Time in prison has a huge number of bad effects on people’s lives – it leads to worse health outcomes, shortens life span, reduces income, hurts family stability, and creates more school dropouts among others. Wives, children, parents, neighbours – all are affected in negative ways even though they have done nothing wrong. As well, prisons disproportionately affect people who are already disadvantaged. These are real costs that are paid not just by prisoners but by all of us. And all this for something that fails in its foremost purpose, which is to make us safer.
We could do better
At a time when we are struggling to find money for health care, to serve the homeless (who disproportionately end up in jail), to address mental health issues (for people who disproportionately end up in jail), and to meet a variety of other social needs, we can identify billions of dollars that could be used for these much better purposes. Yet no government in Canada, at any level, is seriously suggesting this kind of reallocation. Evidence-based? Not at all.
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