A Prisoner Dilemma
The justifications for punishment in California
The California budget crises led the 9th Circuit to order the State to reduce its prison rolls by 40,000 inmates. There are generally four justifications for imprisonment and its interesting to see how this order might mesh with them.
1. Incapacitation. Keep criminals off the streets, thereby lowering crime.
2. Retribution. Criminals deserve the punishment.
3. Rehabilitation. Doing time can reform the criminal mind.
4. Deterrence. Imprisonment deters future criminals.
Looking at each category individually might reveal certain groups of prisoners especially eligible for release.
1. Incapacitation: All things being equal, release the first-time offender. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe I’ve read that second-time offenders are much more likely to be third-time offenders than first-time offenders are to be second-time offenders.
2. Retribution: If we believe in the basic legitimacy of the system, it would seem that a retributive view would disallow any prisoner release. The punishment, on this view, is what the prisoners’ deserve; and that is the end of the story, as Kant might say, more brilliantly and confusingly. This raises many deeper issues, such as how to determine the appropriate amount of punishment if some punishment is indeed deserved. An eye for an eye is one thing. An eye for 5-years is less clear. I digress.
3. Rehabilitation: Maybe there are some prisoners that have clearly rehabilitated, but aren’t yet up for parole.
4. Deterrence: What crimes are non-deterrable? All things being equal, releasing a prisoner who performed a non-deterrable crime makes more sense.
That’s my quick take. Here’s the California Department of Corrections view, which seems to account for many of these concerns:
The department suggests deporting illegal-immigrant inmates and allowing some low-level offenders to serve the final year of their sentences under house arrest. In addition, the state would reduce sentences of inmates who complete prison rehabilitation programs. The state may also change sentencing guidelines so offenders charged with crimes such as drug possession would be prosecuted for misdemeanors instead of felonies. If convicted, inmates would be sentenced to county jails rather than state prisons.