Imprisonment or incarceration is one of the main punishment and tool to maintain low crime rate. But, there is now a growing acknowledgement worldwide that imprisonment may not be as effective as it may seem be initially, and as a punishment, it does not achieve some of its important objectives. In the long run as well, it may even become harmful to the offenders foremost, then to their families and loved ones, then to the whole community as well (Travis, 2). Imprisonment has several stated objectives.
One of these is that the punishment could secure those suspected of crime in a place of little escape chances and so they would be present when they would be tried for their innocence by a court. Another is that it serves as a sentence for the offenders for violating the law, specifically depriving them of their freedom. It also prevents them from committing more crimes because they are inside the prison and ideally, the period of imprisonment would serve as a rehabilitation process for them.
Rehabilitation is of course important because this would address those underlying issues that led the offenders to commit the crime in the first place and if they would be resolved, then no repetition of such criminal behaviors would be seen from these people in the future anymore (OSCE, 1). This objective of rehabilitating offenders is seen to be not met by imprisonment, quite the opposite in fact. Incarceration not only rarely leads to a rehabilitation process, but the offenders tend to further criminalize individuals, which results to re-offending and therefore a cycle of release then become imprisoned again and again.
This sort of ineffective punishment therefore does not do anything in order to help build safer communities (OSCE, 1). Majority of the offenders inside the prison, incarcerated have general characteristics. Worldwide, these people are economically and socially disadvantaged when it comes to their backgrounds: they are poor, unemployed, come from broken families, have no permanent homes and even have a historical trail of having psychological and mental illness, drug and alcoholic abuse and experiences domestic violence (OSCE, 1).
Another issue of incarceration is that it is treated as the answer to every kind of crime. It could be observed that many in prison committed only minor offences or for non-violent crimes. By making imprisonment the immediate response to such cases, it could be said that the issue of safety in the community is not being addressed in a sustainable fashion. The cycle of poverty, the rising unemployment rate, the increasing psychological and mental illnesses as well as proliferation of drug use would even be the adverse results of using the imprisonment as the tool to reduce crimes (OSCE, 1).
Prisons are more often than not, crowded, as the population keeps increasing every year. Various health risks are actually associated with these overcrowded prisons, and then as a relation, there would be the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV. Worldwide as well, violence is already a common element of prison life, more so in overcrowded ones. Governments usually respond to this problem of overcrowding by building more prisons or by lessening the number of people staying in them. Reality shows that building more imprisonment institutions does not provide sustainable solution to the problem.
This is because a lot of countries actually see this rising number of new prisons being offset by an also increasing figure of prison population. Also, building and maintaining these new prisons is costly and impede on government’s valuable resources (Stemen, 7). Another option is the reducing the prisoners. This could be done through the various international instruments that offer a rationalization in sentencing policy, including the wider use of incarceration alternatives (OSCE, 1). Of course, these alternatives alone would also be insufficient to reduce the prison size.
What is needed to supplement these alternatives is a comprehensive reform of criminal laws as well as sentencing practices. These reforms would include decriminalizing certain acts, shortening the terms of imprisonment associated with selected offences, establishing a wide range of non-custodial sentences instead of imprisonment and expanding the possibilities for parole (OSCE, 1). These alternatives do not respond to the problem of overcrowding only. These can essentially change the approaches employed to crime, criminals and their status in the society.
Correctional measures could change from focusing on punishing and isolating these offenders to restoring and reintegrating their values as persons. Effectively supporting these offenders, they can live the lives without relapsing into their criminal behaviors. Alternatives such as penal sanctions within the community rather than isolating these offenders from their communities provide a longer term and much better protection for the society (OSCE, 1). In western societies, it had been observed that a probation system is less costly than the incarceration of offenders.
But, it is also a fact that these western style probationary processes are not applicable worldwide, as many countries have scarce resources to set up and maintain a probation system with enough staff and finances. In these cases, already existing structures and staff like the courts, municipal authorities, social agencies and more others plus the volunteers for the supervision of noncustodial sentences may be more viable and effective options (OSCE, 1). Pitfalls are not uncommon to these alternatives. In undertaking legislative reforms, there should be assurance that these changes would actually lead to a reduction of imprisonment.
Alternatives would have to be actually used rather than just added to the overall volume of sanctions and therefore increasing them. This should be brought to attention because it’s a common practice to use an alternative in lieu of another alternative or alternative sentences are passed when there are no previous sentences being passed (OSCE, 1). In many countries, although alternatives are available in the legislation, they are not popular because judges and magistrates lack confidence in the effectiveness of the community sanctions and measures.
These figures are quite important to ensure that any legislative reform would be successful. At an early stage, their cooperation must already be sought and ensured to have a stable criminal justice reform and efficient new policies. The organizational factors of the implementation of alternatives like community service must be taken seriously and human and financial resources must be allocated effectively to the proper monitoring and administering of these community sanctions.
And because these sanctions are done in the community, public support should also be primary in the reforms (OSCE, 1). Even if they have committed crimes, the human rights of these offenders must still be protected. International instruments recommend the ethical, legal and executive framework for the application of non-custodial sanctions. An underlying principle with sanctions against offenders to do some actions like community service should still require the offenders’ consent.
Not only this, since human rights abuses are not uncommon in the sanctions such as community service, offenders should still have recourse to a formal complaints system, as stated in the legislation (OSCE, 1).
UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “Custodial and Non-Custodial Measures: Alternatives to Incarceration” OSCE. November 2006 Stemen, Don. “Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime” Vera Justice. January 2007. Travis, Jeremy et. al. “Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry” Urban Institute. June 2005.