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Mark Adams: Does Prison Work?

Editors Note: The third article in our "Personal Views" series is written by Mark Adams. It originally appeared on his own website, in response to our launch. He has kindly agreed for us to republish it here. If you would like to add your personal view, you know where to find us.

Read on for Mark's answer to the question "Does prison work?".

As recently as a year ago I would not have thought twice about calling myself a conservative. Today that is no longer the case. Politicians in Britain and America have taken the word away from the Thatcher-Reagan legacy of limited government so instead I call myself a libertarian. This has led me to evaluate some of the central tenets of conservatism that I had not previously questioned.

Thus I welcome the launch of a new netroots movement called In the first instance I welcome debate and the left-liberal consensus that prison does not work, rightly or wrongly held, should not stand unchallenged. More importantly, it provides an opportune moment for me question one of my longest held beliefs and ask, does prison work?

In truth I don't think the question is a very good one. There are different crimes and different types of criminal who commit them. Nor is their a broad consensus about what the purpose of our criminal justice system should be. To a left-liberal criminals are victims of social injustice. Thus to punish them would be to worsen the injustice rather than correct it. From this point of view prison quite clearly does not work. Prisonworks defines it more conventionally

...putting people in prison reduces crime. Reducing crime should be the primary concern when forming policy.

There are of course differences between conservatives and libertarians about what the law should be. To a libertarian the chief purpose is to protect the individual's life, liberty and property rights - both from others and from the state itself. Thus the chief aims are deterrence and restitution. To the conservative our law is tied to the idea of sin. Punishing a person for an immoral action is an end in itself. This concept of law also allows for "victimless crimes" or crimes against the state.

To my mind the primary concern when forming policy should not be so much to reduce crime as to reduce the impact of crime. These may be almost identical goals but it is a distinction worth making nonetheless. There is an opportunity cost to keeping people in prison. We may have to cut back on police or impose new taxes which will be paid by the potential victims of crime. In some cases we may consider the risk of a person re-offending to be less costly than the cost of their incarceration.

I believe white collar crime may be one of those cases. We currently incarcerate many such individuals at a cost to society. An alternative approach would be to set in place a system based on restitution where offenders must pay punitive damages to their victims. If they were unable to do so then they would be given community service jobs. Prison may still be used as a last resort for repeat offenders, or against those whose actions cause injury to their victims. The benefit of such a system is that although crime could potentially increase, the overall cost of crime is reduced by the saving to the taxpayer and by the compensatory aspect of the system. The fact that these cases could be tried through our civil courts brings the added advantages of a lower burden of proof and that prosecutions would be apolitical.

While such a system may also be beneficial in dealing with other petty, non-violent criminals, its merits are not universal. We might be willing to accept the risk of having such criminals remain at large, but it is unlikely we would extend such a principle to murderers and rapists. However even here the question of whether putting people in prison reduces crime is still too simplistic.

We still face the economic reality of limited resources. It is not sufficient to establish that more prison places reduces crime - it must be shown that the marginal cost of each new prison place outweighs the benefits of the alternative. We may prefer to have more police, thus preventing crime before it has happened. Alternatively we may choose to improve the quality of our prisons (i.e. reducing recidivism) rather the quantity. Indeed if we were successful in reducing crime by these or similar measures, we might expect the prison population to fall. I don't mean to suggest that prisonworks has neglected these issues - they have addressed them in some detail - but it is important to recognise that these are not just complimentary expenditures but also competitors for limited resources.

I think it is reasonable to assume that prisonworks is making a ceteris paribus (all other things held equal) claim. Yet even if we increase the number of prison places the question of who those places go too remains. Do we try to raise the conviction rate, or increase the number of offences carrying a custodial sentence? Should we start locking up first time offenders, or concentrate our efforts on habitual criminals?

Then there is the issue of what kind of prison places we create. We can build 'super-max' style prisons where inmates never see the light of day or have prisoners sleeping in cells of 20 at night and working on chain-gangs during the day. The type of prison we build depends largely upon the criminal we wish to hold. Boot-camps might be effective against the young thug but are no use against disciplined, professional criminals. This raises the question, which our penal has still not resolved, of how to tailor the offence to the criminal but maintain universal justice.

I do not pretend to have an answer to these questions but they are the sorts of questions that must be addressed if the case for prisons is to be effectively made. Although objective cost-benefit analysis must play a role in providing the answer it will be difficult to draw conclusions from the data available.

For my part I think that prison is not incompatible with a libertarian society, but nor is it a cure-all. Instead we need a comprehensive package of policies:

Welfare Reform
Crime begins with our broken benefits system. Too many children are born into single parent families because young girls are encouraged to get pregnant. Welfare payments, combined with an onerous tax system, discourage young men from seeking work.
Lack of opportunity creates crime. We need a voucher system to bring in entrepreneurs who will fix our broken schools.
Local Policing
As our law enforcement have become more distant they are less able to effectively police communities. They respond to national targets, not local needs. We have too many officers enforcing political correctness and filling in paperwork and too few on the streets. The answer is locally organised, and locally accountable, police forces.
Local Justice
Just like the police, we should elect local prosecutors and judges.
Plea Bargaining
A staple of the US system this raises conviction rates and unclogs the system. Criminals won't have time to offend again before going to jail. Granted it has also reduced the length of sentences given but this can be addressed by tougher maximums.
Introduce a System of Restitution for White Collar Crime
Our prisons are clogged enough already and even if we build more places there will always be more demand. This will free up resources and produce a fairer system.
End the Nanny State
Too much time is spent protecting us from ourselves and too little time protecting us from others. This should include ending the war on drugs, which has created immense misery and been used to justify the militarisation of our police.
Self Defence
We should each have a right to defend our persons and our property, by force if necessary. Realistically this must include the right to carry a concealed firearm.
Deport Foreign Criminals
People who come here to live peacefully should be welcomed. People who come here to break the law should be sent back.
Prison Reform
If we are to have more prisons they must be shown to work better. We need to look around the world for successful examples and implement them here.

In the context of the reforms I have laid out, I believe that increasing the number of prison places is entirely justifiable. I have not touched here on the matter of the death sentence of which I am a half-hearted supporter. Half-hearted in that I do not object to execution except I have little faith in our justice system to deliver accurate results. That is, of course, another issue that needs to be addressed in tandem with other reforms.


I agree that punishment is perhaps not the most compelling reason for jailing people, and I personally would be happy to sell the idea of prison as primarily to protect society from future crime, or to put it in libertarian terms, to protect individual's life, liberty and property rights.

However, it's hard to envisage punishment, which along with revenge is a fundamental human emotion, not playing a part in the criminal justice system.

You make an interesting point that restitution instead of incarceration for some crimes might be more productive, but I would need to be convinced that those who are subject to a restitutional penalty can be readily and effectively prevented from re-offending.

I like the fact that you frame your solution in comprehensive terms. Prison reform is just one (albeit important) piece of the jigsaw. You are also correcting in highlighting and challenging the left's view of criminal justice. Destroying this received wisdom is an incredibly important step on the path to prison reform (and making this forum more than a talking shop). We can also argue about the finer points but the idea of intelligent and targetted punishment is sound. Overall well done.


I think punishment should exist but for the purposes of deterrence rather than as an end in itself (this, of course, is a somewhat moot point since the two are largely inseparable).

The resitutional penalty (which would be punitive and therefore incorporate some punishment) would do little to lessen the chances of reoffending other than perhaps to dispel an illusion of invunerablity. However the prison punishment for such offences is usually short and white collar criminals are less likely to calm down with age than violent ones.

I suggested in my post that prison could still be used for repeat offenders. Another possibility - since most such crimes are committed from a position of responsibility/trust is to use an injunction to prevent the person holding such positions. That would also have to be backed by the threat of incarceration.

i've been to prison 2 times once for 2 years and one for 6
years and the only thing is make you smarter at the crimes we do why it's cuz they put so many of us in there we all learn from our mistakes and we alot of time to think about.i've made close to
$800,000,00. in those 8 years and my family don't even have to work any more

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