I’VE always thought jail is mostly a bad idea: It takes young people and puts them in constant contact with society’s very worst. They eventually emerge with no skills but a tight-knit network of former criminals.
Under my theory, jail is mostly unhelpful for the people that are in there — we only send people to jail because it is hopefully scary enough to deter people from committing crime.
Australia has a jail addiction though. We put people in the clink more and more.
There are lots of explanations why this might be, including the fact we use private prisons even more than America. (And America is reconsidering whether private prisons are a good idea.)
In 2014, The Catholic Prison Ministry said: “Handing the administration of punishment over to corporations will lead to conflict between the social interests of citizens as stakeholders and financial interests of corporations to maximise profits for shareholders.”
And I thought they were probably right, because crime is falling:
It’s not just murders. Break-ins, robbery and motor vehicle theft all went down in the last five years. Sexual assault and theft rose.
(Taking the really long view, violent crime is at record lows: “Violent deaths of all kinds have declined, from around 500 per 100,000 people per year in pre-state societies to around 50 in the Middle Ages, to around six to eight today worldwide, and fewer than one in most of Europe.” Steven Pinker told the Scientific American in 2011.)
You can see why I was cold on prison. And experts agreed. “Putting more people in prison diverts resources from vital social infrastructure and cost effective initiatives which have been shown to successfully address the underlying causes of crime,” these experts said.
But some new research from Norway is making me weigh up my view. It finds prison is good, and it does so in a very clever way.
STOP. SLAMMER TIME.
There is an obvious problem researching whether prison works. Ex-prisoners tend to commit a lot of crime. Did prison made them like that? Or were they always like that?
The clever thing this research does is comparing groups of prisoners who are otherwise the same, except for the judge they get. Some got a judge who puts away prisoners more than half the time, some got a judge that gives two out of three offenders community service or similar.
This means we can look at how much crime the two groups commit later, and the only likely difference between them is the influence of a prison environment.
This research finds jail is great. The prisoners who go to jail end up getting 10 fewer criminal charges. (The result is not due to simply being unable to commit crime in jail — the reduction starts from when the person is released, over an equivalent period of time.)
The ones that went to jail also have much better employment outcomes — they are more likely to find work.
There is an important point to make. Jail seems to really work for some kinds of people. It strongly improves the chances for people who were not employed. Jail didn’t prove to be either positive or negative for people who previously had jobs. The reason is probably that jail adds a lot of structure and training to their lives.
“Imprisonment causes a 34 percentage point increase in participation in job training programs for the previously non-employed, and within five years, their employment rate increases by 40 percentage points,” according to academics Manudeep Bhuller, Gordon B. Dahl, Katrine V. Loken and Magne Mogstad in their paper,Incarceration, Recidivism and Employment.
It’s worth pointing out this research happened in Norway, where jail can be pretty different (even “luxurious,”) and most prison sentences are under a year.
“In Scandinavian countries like Norway, the prison system focuses on rehabilitation, preparing inmates for life on the outside. This is done in part by investing in education and training programs, but also through extensive use of “open prisons” in which prisoners are housed in low-security surroundings and allowed frequent visits to families while electronically monitored. In comparison, in many other countries, rehabilitation has taken a back seat in favour of prison policies emphasising punishment and incapacitation.”
It seems like jail can be pretty useful for some people — so long as you design it to be useful. Unfortunately, Australia’s prisons are more like America’s than Norway’s.
We could make our prisons like Norway’s. But first we need to decide if we can stomach being “nice” to prisoners in order to actually stop them from committing more crime later. I’d support that. But I suspect for a lot of people, that’s not going to be acceptable — for them, punishment is what matters most.
Jason Murphy is an economist. He publishes the blog Thomas The Think Engine. Follow Jason on Twitter @Jasemurphy
Aylesbury Prison houses some of the sickest and most depraved criminals in Britain. What sets it apart from your average prison is that Aylesbury’s oldest inhabitants are just 21.