Incarceration and Rehabilitation Impact in Crime Reduction


Historically, each civilization has managed to define and design methods to punish those who go against society’s codes of conduct. In the 16th and 17th centuries,’ Europe applied brutal or rather cruel methods of punishments in death and mutilation. In the mid and late 20th century, however, rehabilitation was the most prominent method used to correct criminal behaviors. The United States was the first country to apply incarceration as a form of punishment in the 19th Century. Before this period, incarceration was mainly applicable to those who awaited trial. It’s believed that incarceration emerged from the tendency of the English judges to “spare the lives of criminals who agreed to be transported” (Fabiano, Porporino & Robinson, 1991, p.331). Initially, criminals were being transported to the American colonies, and later to Australia. Arguably, incarceration has produced a certain degree of success in modern society, despite several loopholes that have emerged during and after its application.

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Rehabilitation on the other hand is a comparatively new area in the criminal justice system. Unlike retribution and deterrence, other forms of punishments like levying fines, corporal punishment, and banishment, rehabilitation are considered a more friendly approach to punishment as it only seeks to reform an individual (Dowden, Blanchette & Serin, 1999). Until the 18th century, treatment of criminal offenders was based on the belief that human beings are naturally evil and possessed by ill motives, that crime is synonymous with sinning (Dowden, Blanchette & Serin, 1999). It was also believed that reforming offenders as an option was not possible; hence the need to carry on with drastic measures to defend the social and moral justice in the society. However, these earlier forms of punishment have been considered too cruel to be effective in contemporary society. Humans are now viewed as free and rational creatures, who deserve a second chance in the development of their characters and behaviors, thanks to the philosophy of enlightenment that is attributed to the altered perception of belief in Europe and the entire new world (Harvey, Hunt & Schroder, 2001).


History of criminal justice suggests that incarceration has been used to punish criminal offenders. In the United States, approximately 2 million people have been incarcerated (Saklofske & Zeidner, 2006). These incarcerations have been done at the county, state, and federal levels of criminal justice meting. The number of imprisoned and jailed is increasing every day. Between early 1970 and 2000, the number of people in jails and prisons rose from 300,000 to 2.2 million, putting a lot of pressure on the existing facilities meant to facilitate the incarceration process (Saklofske & Zeidner, 2006). It is in sharp contrast to the general rise in population during the same period, which is below 40%. Some have even gone further to describe prison projects as one of the major ‘growth’ industries of the century in the United States (Saklofske & Zeidner, 2006).

Does Incarceration Meet the Intended Goal: Reduction of Recidivism?

In the 1990s, the United States experienced the highest decline in criminal activities. Consequently, proponents of incarceration as a form of punishment have claimed that the significant reduction in crime rate is due to the increased use of incarceration as a form of punishment for criminal offenders. Specifically, the increased use of “tougher sentences and restrictive release patterns are the primary cause of this sustained crime drop” (Pernanen, 2007). Federal Government has been at the forefront of many long-term incarceration cases. Certain compulsory minimums have been set for offenders; guidelines for sentencing, the introduction of stringent policies have been made part of the system, and the elimination of parole completes the circuit of the tougher measures for the criminal offenders.

The federal government’s Department of Justice has been in defense of incarceration, stating that “tougher sentencing means less crime” (Pernanen, 2007). They have also claimed that stringent options of incarceration have changed the way criminal offenders perceive criminal activities, especially for violent offenders (Pernanen, 2007). That is, tougher sentencing has helped eliminate the number of criminals from our streets, provided just punishment criteria that match the nature of the offense, and has acted as a deterrent to those intending to commit a crime (Pernanen, 2007). Despite these claims and assertions on the importance of incarceration as a form of meeting justice in the United States, there are clear indications that this option has had a fair share of weaknesses, as far as research findings and analysis are concerned.

Incarceration and Crime Relationship

Studies have revealed that there is a complex relationship between incarceration and crime. Many researchers have unsuccessfully attempted to connect crime reduction with increased incarceration. Quantitative data have not supported the belief that incarceration reduces rates of criminal activities (Kennedy, 1989; Izzo & Ross, 1990; Huck & Sandier, 1993; Gendreau & Coggin, 1996). Some of the issues that have been identified as presenting technicalities are the difficulties in separating crime rates in states from the national one; differing criminal offense measures and victimization; and assessment of different time frames to help in the analysis of the crime cases (Gendreau & Coggin, 1996). The complexities emerge from the fact that other factors may affect crime within the society. These factors include the economic trend or change in the economic status of the people, rates of employment, the age distribution of the population, demographics, drug use cases, and variation in population geography (Hannon & DeFina, 2008).

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The Differing Methods of Crime Rate and Victimization Measurement

The United States has traditionally applied two basic crime rate measurement methods; the Uniform Crime Reports, and the victimization surveys. It is the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation department to compile the criminal incidences reported to the police.

Inequality, Incarceration and Crime Rates

Increased rates of crime have been attributed to the widening gap between the rich and the poor in many societies. Economists have used this phenomenon to measure how effective incarceration is in the efforts to reduce crime. They have therefore emphasized the value of diminishing returns and long vs. short term impacts of the incarceration process. Despite the less focus on the impact of economic status and crime rate in the society, the impact of the economic gap is important in the analysis of crime rate. From the economic theory as well as the social-ecological theory perspectives, it is logical to deduce that crime reduction initiatives in regions with high economic inequality may be less effective in the long term basis. According to the standard economic theory, economically weaker individuals have nothing to lose; hence will commit a crime without a second thought. This subsequently makes it difficult to deter them from committing crimes repeatedly. Moreover, several social-ecological theories show that poor people are “vulnerable to the criminogenic effects of incarceration and crime rates on social institutions” (Cox, Burd & Roberts, 1997, p.321).

Recent studies have suggested that the role of economic inequality is vital in the examination of the connection between incarceration and rates of crime. Hannon & DeFina (2008) used Johnson & Raphael’s innovative instrumental variable to measure the economic inequality that exists between the individuals in a particular society related to the crime rate. Their findings indicate that incarceration’s effect on crime is determined by economic inequality. However, the effects of economic inequality are determined by certain aspects of inequality operations.

For the majority, the connection between incarceration and crime rate is more of an intuitive element than a common agenda (Cirillo, Pruitt, & Colwell, 1998). The common belief about incarceration is that “if one is locked up in jail, he or she is not able to commit more crime” (Cirillo, Pruitt, & Colwell, 1998, p.324). However, it must be noted that crime and imprisonment are dynamic variables that often challenge this belief. Various reasons have been mentioned to have a limited impact on the rate of crime:

  • Diminishing Returns

Initiatives to expand the use of imprisonment as a form of meeting justice have been found to result in diminishing returns in the control of criminal activities. It is acknowledged that serious offenders will be incarcerated even at the “modest level of imprisonment” (Andrews, Kiessling, Russell & Grant, 1999). However, as the prison system gets expanded, those newly admitted criminals will continue to attract lower-rate offenders. The increase in the lower-rate offenders shifts the cost-to-benefit ratio since the amount spent on the offenders does not reduce in any way. This means that the state spends the same amount of resources irrespective of the offender’s status, consequently shifting the cost-to-benefit ratio. The final result is not commensurate to the amount spent as the return on investment in terms of crime rate reduction is not justifiable (Andrews, Kiessling, Russell & Grant, 1999). A case in point is the increased pursuit of drug offenders through the federal system. In this case, the number of petty drug offenders has increased exponentially (Ausubel, 1988). In 2002 alone, approximately 60% of federal drug offenders who got jailed were found to be in category 1 of criminal history, and more than 88% had no weapon involved in the offense (Ausubel, 1988).

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Historical data suggest that drug offenders have presented the biggest number of incarcerated individuals, with the number increasing from forty thousand to four hundred and fifty thousand between 1980 and 2005 (Chandler, 2006). It is believed that incarcerating individuals charged with drug-related cases have limited impact as drug business is dependent on the “replacement effect” (Andrews, 1996). For instance, a robber who has been charged with violent robbery is easy to deal with since incapacitation will limit his or her ability to commit more crimes. On the contrary, a jailed street-wise drug seller will be easily replaced by other similarly shrewd drug sellers who are ready to make a profit from the drug business. Alfred Blumstein, a renowned criminologist has noted that the drug market is controlled by the demand and that as long as the demand exists, networks of drug barons will be created to satisfy the demand (Campbell & Stanley, 2003). He acknowledges that while efforts to reduce the drug effects may be successful in the short term perspective, the main goal is to minimize the demand to reduce drug effects in society (Burgess & Akers, 1996). Researchers have proposed several ways in which they can use to measure the drug abuse prevalence such as carrying out a survey on the households at the national level. Although those in prison today for drug-related cases have increased tenfold for the last 25 years, the frequency of drug use is still relatively high, with studies showing that the general increase over those years has been exponential. Consequently, during the time in which the number of offenders jailed for drug-related cases increased, the bottom-line behavior is that there was no significant impact on the overall crime reduction.

  • Federal Incarceration and its limits

Studies suggest that criminal incarceration has a lot of limitations, as far as the federal prison system is concerned due to “the nature of the offense in the federal prison population” (Andrews, 1996, p.42). It has been shown that the overall reduction in crime in the 1990s was only based on the measured decline in property as well as violent offenses. But it is also noted that only 13 percent of the federal prisoners have been charged and jailed for violent criminal activities. This is a big contrast from the 55% convicted for drug-related cases. Moreover, the majority of the federal drug offenders are low-level (Chandler, 2006). For example, 65% of crack cocaine offenders who were jailed in 2000 were found to be either street-wise traders or petty couriers (Chandler, 2006). About 60% of these offenders were found to have powder cocaine Chandler, 2006).

  • The Negative Impact on Family and the Community of the incarcerated offender

The exponential increase in the number of incarcerated individuals has subsequently increased the negative impact of secluding a member of a family or a society. The impact has a social inclination since those affected are members of a family, and the separation and eventual return destabilize the bond between the family members (Andrews, 1996). The disconnection between the criminal offenders and the family members has been found to lead to “high chances of recidivism and future criminality” (Andrews, 1996, p.43). The trend may receive an exacerbated impact as more and more people get secluded in prisons far away from their homes and family members.

A study conducted by Urban Institute indicated that several cities of the United States have suffered from the impact of recidivism and that it is critically noted that the success of the released criminals who return home is dependent on how the individual was in touch with the family members during his or her time in prison (Serin & Brown, 2006). Moreover, the ability to get into mainstream employment is dependent on the ability of the person to maintain the old contacts. However, the challenge is that the number of jailed individuals increase, these contacts are lost and he or she is left hanging in the balance with the difficulty of establishing new contacts. This creates a lot of harm to the family and the larger community.


Even though the tendency to commit crime could be explained by a social construct that is likely to vary from culture to culture and different social settings, particular types of antisocial behaviors can be universally categorized as common across cultures Hannon & DeFina, 2008. Individuals who have been found guilty of such antisocial behaviors may face certain levels of punishments under the prevailing law of the country or state. In this scenario, retribution becomes part of the many roles of such punishments including punishment for the destruction or harm they have caused the society. The social benefit comes when the individual offender’s likelihood of committing offenses is reduced, through rehabilitation and treatment.

For a detailed understanding of the treatment through rehabilitation, scholars have used different approaches to explain the rehabilitation process. The most obvious rationale that may guide the rehabilitation approaches explains that it tends to eliminate those factors which may cause or increase the criminal behavior of an individual. The other idea is based on the fact that diagnostic typology of offenders is required to be in line with how they respond to treatment criteria provided during the process. In other words, various offenders have got a different form of response to treatment and rehabilitation process hence is treatment is to succeed effectively; there would be a need to address issues that are linked to every offender about their response mechanism.

Rehabilitation as an alternative to solving crime has grown into usage in the last few years. States and federal governments have faced major pressure on the consistent use of incarceration as a form of meeting justice in the criminal justice system, despite its unrealistic economic burden. According to Windham School System (1994, cited in Hannon & DeFina, 2008 ), the law enforcement units of the governments are “ordered by the federal, state, as well as local lawmakers to arrest and confine persons suspected of a crime; the judicial system is given the responsibility of confining the arrested individual”. However, with less efficient rehabilitation programs, the effort put into the process becomes less effective.

Generally, the common public perception is that rehabilitation in prisons can never work effectively due to a myriad of reasons. This perception may have been informed by the early research by Martinson (1974, cited in Dowden, Blanchette & Serin, 1999), who made a statement that nothing can work with rehabilitation programs as criminals are treated better than other members of the society. However, many modern researchers have disagreed with this notion and concluded that rehabilitation, if well used can lead to crime reduction and minimal chances of recidivism (Andrews, et al., 1999; Campbell & Stanley, 2003; Chandler, 2006).

Rehabilitation and Public Safety

The impact of rehabilitation, especially the correctional approach has been found to have a positive effect on the reduction of recidivism that consequently leads to effective public safety once offenders have been released to rejoin the community in which they had developed connections before committing a crime. Izzo & Ross (1990) conducted meta-analyses of different approaches including punitive, and treatment in the rehabilitation process. The findings revealed that supervision and sanctions, when properly used in the overall analysis, may lead to important public safety measures as a goal for rehabilitation. The moment offenders are released from prison, they are in a position to face the challenges that may result in the overall reduction the criminal cases or recidivism.

However, there are existing variables that affect associated treatment in the rehabilitation process. First, there is the fact that individuals respond differently to the rehabilitation criteria. A study by Fishbein (1990, cited in Huck & Sandier, 1993) revealed that “Maladaptive behavior is a function of a cumulative developmental process” and that over time cumulative behavioral traits triggered by the environmental and social orientations are what define individual behaviors. If a child has been experiencing early signs of maladaptive behaviors such as aggression, there is the possibility of him or her extending the behavior to adulthood. Compared to a child who is more cooperative and compliant, an aggressive child will carry on with the trait to adulthood, subsequently increasing the possibility of repetitive criminal activities in the future.

The process of cognitive skill development

The early conceptualized ideas reveal that cognitive skills are developed through a series of stages hierarchically, with each stage representing a different and advanced form of thinking upwards (Ausubel, 1988). However, researchers have identified a situation where criminal offenders often delay in the development of these skills, putting them at risk of developing ‘crime-prone thinking’ (Ausubel, 1988). More significantly, delinquents have been found to think more impulsively and rarely think that the crime they are just about to commit is likely to cause any harm or may lead to serious consequences. This recognition that a criminal offender may not be in a position to think positively immediately before the act has gained prominence in modern criminology literature. The cognitive Social Competence Model of Criminal behavior postulates that there is a significant connection between “how criminal offenders think, how they view the world and how well they attempt to solve the problem” (Burgess & Akers, 1996). It is noted that thinking is based on the behavior of an individual and that one must strive to understand the offender’s thoughts and what drives them to criminal behavior (Chandler, 2006).

The other complex aspect of this method is based on the fact that the development of individuals begins with several behavioral problems. These emotional problems may include emotional disturbances, as well as problems of behavior common with children, the inability of adult criminal offenders to manage anger, the problems with adolescent adjustment, and criminals addicted to alcohol or drug (Gendreau & Ross, 1999).

Modified Theory for Crime Control

The belief that the crime rate dropped in the 1990s is due to the increased use of incarceration does not hold many facts. It fails to inform us on whether the sole reliance on the program was the most effective method that reduced the crime rate. On the other hand, the lack of research findings to prove the connection between cognitive factors and crime justifies the inadequacy of rehabilitation as a treatment method. From a different perspective, we are informed that the use of the two separate approaches may not provide the best results for crime reduction.

Several demonstrations have proved that the use of drugs, intervention with at-risk families, and the use of school-based programs are more effective in criminal offense reduction. Moreover, the increased use of these methods helps reduce expenditure since they are cost-effective. In the dimension of drug use, analysis of various studies has suggested that an expense of US$1 million in the expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing may give positive results as far as a national decrease in drug consumption by approximately 12 kg (Hannon & DeFina, 2008). When the funds are redirected to the treatment of drugs, the consumption would reduce by approximately 25 percent (Hannon & DeFina, 2008).

Conceptual Approach for Effective Control: The Causal Intervention Approach

The theoretical perspective of effective crime control will take the form of causal factors control. In this case, the prevention mechanism will be important, especially in the analysis of various ranges of national programs. Such programs may begin after school completion and focus on initiatives to address the needs of the youth at risk of criminal indulgence. In a similar dimension, it is logical to develop a plan that can aid initiatives to reduce cases of recidivism at the family level. As research has revealed, family plays a significant role in the development of offenders’ better behaviors after being released from jail. The causal-intervention mechanism will reduce the causal factors that determine the various behavioral habits of various individuals. In this perspective, it becomes critical to acknowledge that the need to eliminate causal factors to criminal offense rather than act after a crime has been committed.


In the last 3 decades, there has been a clear lesson on the impact of incarceration and rehabilitation in the reduction of crime, considering other factors such as financial costs. It is acknowledged that while incarceration has some positive impacts on crime reduction, this impact is more modest and costly in fiscal terms. It, therefore, follows that increasing incarceration may not be the best approach to crime reduction in the long term. Its costly nature in terms of courts’ heavy financial requirements, correction, or jail facilities maintenance does not go down well with the intended goal of crime reduction.

Similarly, rehabilitation as an option lacks the needed justification, making the process quite an expensive affair. The overall goal of any form of intervention should be based on the minimum cost and highest effective outcome, i.e. justified cost-effective intervention mechanism. It is therefore prudent for policymakers to assess the dynamism of crime and the intervention processes that have been applied over time are critical for future success.

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