On the Correctiveness of the Department of Corrections

Most of the prison systems in the United States are dubbed “Department of Corrections.” With about 0.7% of American adults in jail at any given point, this means that we’re trying to correct a whole lot of people. It’s actually a bigger portion of the population than that of any other nation on earth. The Prison Policy Initiative has an illuminating breakdown of the numbers.

But how effectively do we actually “correct” prisoners? 76% of those incarcerated return to prison (within 5 years) by committing repeat crimes when they return to free society. Some people believe that our sentences don’t deter people enough from committing crimes; some people believe that we should move away from extended prison sentences and combat crime with more funding to social programs.

Something to consider: what if our Corrections Departments were specifically designed to re-integrate prisoners into free society? To really challenge our thinking, we can look at the example of Norway, where they’re experimenting with a prison that is designed to psychologically and emotionally rehabilitate prisoners, and teach them to be productive members of society. The cost for such a program is about 3x the average yearly cost per prisoner in the United States. If the US took on this cost (a total of about $90,000/prisoner/year), it would spend an extra $150 billion per year in its prison system.

Might such an approach be a waste of taxpayer dollars (asking an additional $1,000 per worker per year)? Might it reduce reincarceration and “pay for itself” in the long run? Would such a “soft” approach be a violation of achieving real justice for victims? That is, should certain violent or malicious crimes be worthy of real punishment? Might the soft approach limit the deterrent capacity of the justice system?

There are probably a lot of factors going into answering this question. Where might we look to learn more?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.