A crime can be defined as an action that is prohibited and punishable by law. Actions of crime vary from country to country. An act that is punishable by law in one country may not be a crime in another. Incarceration refers to the forced confinement of an individual. This is done by state agents charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law. There are several forms of incarceration; these may include electronic monitoring, work release, house arrest, prisoner-of-war camp or it can also take the form of halfway house. It may also simply mean imprisonment where prisoners are confined in a limited space with less and monitored freedom of movement (Smith and Cole, 2001, p57)
Incarceration as a crime control strategy
The strategy of incarceration has its successes in controlling crime. There are chronic criminals who when left free will continue with the commitment of crime unless shot to death by police or lynched by mob justice. Incarcerating such criminals has the effect of preventing them from committing more crimes since they are under surveillance and close watch by the law enforcement authority. Using this strategy, the more the number of criminals incarcerated or imprisoned the more the crime rate is reduced.
The length of incarceration may also discourage some criminals from committing a crime, especially first-time offenders: certain individuals may feel like committing a crime but would rather not go ahead due to fear of incarceration and losing some basic freedom.
Increasing the length of incarceration is likely to reduce crime rates. This will ensure stubborn criminals stay long in prison and the law enforcement agencies then may only deal with new criminals or first-time offenders.
Psychologically, incarceration helps criminals to reflect on their criminal lives and make a choice of whether it is good to continue life in crime. The prison environment is limiting in terms of mobility and one associate with a limited number of people; the criminal may not have many activities to do and sometimes may be confined in a solitary cell; the feeling of loneliness may facilitate self-evaluation and regret. During this process, the incarcerated individual may possibly decide to change his or her behavior. Behavior change is one of the reasons criminals are incarcerated, so also prison provides a good environment for groups like the religious organizations, psychological counselors and motivational speakers to access the prisoners and give them inspirations which may lead them into changing their characters.
The incarceration of an individual has the effect of reducing criminal activities; however, it does not work in some cases. Research has shown that there are criminal activities that go on unabated. This may be due to threats of severe action by the criminals. The victims may decide to keep quiet and let the criminal activities go on without alerting the law enforcement agencies. In this case, incarceration only works to deter the incarcerated criminals who have fallen into government trap from committing further crimes.
As the number of incarcerated criminals increase, state spending also goes up because the incarcerated individuals must be taken care of. This results in the trade-offs between incarcerations of criminals and spending more and reducing incarceration and cutting on the state budget. It may reach a point where the number of incarcerated criminals exhausts the available financial resource involved in maintaining them behind bars, especially when the periods of incarceration are long. In solving the challenge the government may move to reduce lengths of incarcerations and release some of the criminals with petty offenses. This has the effects of reintegrating back the criminals into the society; the results are an upward trend in crimes again. This is what is referred to in economics as a diminishing rate of return. The more the criminals are imprisoned the less the crimes are committed but it reaches a point where the cost involved outweighs the benefits.
Increasing prison institutions may be an indicator of failure for incarceration to reduce crime; more prisons are indicative of increasing crime rates. The argument is that the number of reformed and released prisoners should be more than new inmates; that is, incarceration should be very effective to prevent others from committing crimes and also ensure that the spaces left by released individuals are enough to accommodate new criminals sentenced to be incarcerated. Some of the prisoners captured for incarceration may include those who had earlier on finished their incarceration periods and therefore were released back into society.
Criminals in one environment
Prisons are always full of criminals, it is therefore right to argue that criminals within confinement form a community. Within the confinement career criminals get to share their criminal expertise. This leads to the prisoners sharing and acquiring new criminal skills from amongst themselves. There have also been many cases where criminals help one another to escape from prisons. They put their efforts together and devise ways of perfecting their criminal activities and also abscond from the prison premises.
The criminals can continue with their activities within the confinements too. The prisoners may form small groups and with current information technology may collude to perpetrate crimes both within and outside prison walls. If the incarcerated individuals can continue with crimes from within prison walls without the attention of prison authorities then their success in committing crimes sharpens their skills. This is the danger of incarcerating career criminals together. Such kinds of criminals are never deterred by incarceration alone (Kopstein, 1998, p96 and107)
Within the confinements some prisoners may acquire other criminal behaviors. There are many cases where prison warders collude with prisoners and substances like drugs are smuggled into the prison compounds. These drugs finally find their way to incarcerated prisoners who then abuse them. Individuals who have never used drugs may find it easy to start abusing drugs in prison due to peer influence; by the time such people are released back into society they are not reformed but released with more criminal characteristics than at the time of arrest.
Psychosocial factors of crime and incarceration
Naturally, incarceration should be able to deter individuals from engaging in criminal activities, however, there are psychosocial factors that override the fear of incarceration and cause an individual to go ahead and commit a crime. There are those who turn into criminals not because they like them but due to the reason of being labeled as a criminal by members of the society. Such a person internalizes himself or herself as a criminal and therefore would not be deterred from committing a crime should he or she find a good opportunity to do act like one.
Belonging to a particular gang associated with crime tends to influence an individual to engage in criminal activities. Members of a gang may bestow respect for some given anti-social activities hence individual members and recruits will always commit crimes to earn such respect (King, Mauer and Young, 2005, p1 and 2)
Drug addicts who cannot maintain the supply of drugs are highly likely to steal to acquire a supply of drugs. A drug addict may not be originally inclined towards committing crime but as he or she becomes unable to afford the drugs, such an individual is likely to get into crime. Once in crime such a person cannot stop even at the threat of incarceration (King, Mauer and Young, 2005, p6 and7)
There are also reinforcements to criminal behaviors. Most criminal activities start in childhood. This means that children may turn into criminals depending on the kind of upbringing they get. When parents do not guide their children on the right social behavior and instead approve children’s anti-social ones such children are likely to become career criminals in life. Such criminals cannot be rehabilitated just by incarceration since they would have turned into chronic criminals at old age.
Incarceration has the effect of reducing crimes by keeping criminals away from society. The longer a criminal is kept in incarceration the longer he or she stays without committing a crime. Incarcerations also offer the criminals the opportunity to get inspiration from religious groups, psychological counselors and also they are offered vocational training where they acquire skills to use later after their release (Phelps, 1947, p386).
Incarceration is not fully effective in reducing crime; this is because crime is a social problem. The incarcerated criminals still continue with their criminal activities within prisons. They may collude with the corrupt law enforcement agency members to perpetuate crime either within or outside the prison (Richards, 2010, p1 and 2)
The threat of incarceration may not deter other people from engaging in crime. Both social and psychological factors may lead one into committing crime. These may include social labeling of an individual as a criminal, peer pressure within a criminal gang, the need for a drug addict to satisfy the craving for drugs, and child neglect.
King, Ryan; Mauer, Marc; and Young Malcolm. Incarceration and crime a complex relationship. The Sentencing Project, 2005.
Kopstein, Andrea. Drug Use among Racial/Ethnic Minorities. DIANE Publishing, 1998.
Phelps, Augustus. Contemporary social problems. The University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1947
Richards, Rebecca. “Crime: Individual Responsibility or Social Problems?” helium, 2010. Web.
Smith, David and Cole, Padfield. The American system of criminal justice. New York: Wadsworth, 2001.