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Prison Justice Social Contract

Context

Prison is painful and unpleasant - it is a truth ingrained in our collective consciousness since we were children, be that through hit TV shows, sensational movies or frightening school visits from prisoners. This stigma and punishment surrounding prisons is important in keeping society safe.

The Argument

Making prison an unpleasant and undesirable experience is important to deter people from committing crimes. 

 The reason for this lies in the way people make decisions - often through a cost benefit calculus. For example, when you are hungry on an airplane, you consider the cost of the sandwich you can purchase and weigh it up with the beneficial hunger quenching effects it will have. If you decide that the cost of the sandwich is too high, you will endure the hunger until you can find an easier way to satisfy it.

 The costs of a punitive prison system aren’t always monetary, but factor into potential criminal’s decision making calculus regardless. If prison isn’t seen as something that you want to avoid at all costs, it’s likely that people would take greater risks and commit more crime. 

 Deterrence is even more important when you consider that it stops crimes before they happen and prevents pain before it has occurred. Rehabilitation cannot do anything for the already existing victims of crime, but if prison is a sufficient enough deterrent, it can stop prevent them from becoming victims in the first place.

Counter arguments

This argument makes two key mistakes - it misunderstands why people commit crime, and fails to weigh the value we place on deterrence against other aspects we hold important. 

 Firstly on decision-making: people are not perfect cost-benefit calculators. Often times, their calculus is flawed because they aren’t very good at projecting and imagining their future selves. When we finish an entire box of biscuits we are probably setting our future selves up for a tummy ache, but we either underestimate the probability of that tummy ache or its intensity. 

 Secondly, people often commit crimes on the basis of necessity. Oftentimes, even when the cost of crime is high, the cost of *not* participating in it might be even higher - starvation, poverty or illness. 

As a final point - on deterrence. Stopping crime is important, but we also balance that with respecting the dignity and privacy of citizens. It might be that random searches of people’s homes might stop more crime, but we realise that would be too big of an invasion. Similarly, we might say that making prison too punitive unacceptably flouts criminals’ basic dignity.

Premises

1. We prefer to stop crime before it happens rather than attempt to heal after it, therefore deterrence is the most important aspect of the prison system

 2. Making prison an unpleasant experience is a strong deterrent 

 3. Prison ought to be punitive and unpleasant

Rejecting the premises

2. Making prison an unpleasant experience is a strong deterrent 
This is often untrue, people are bad at calculating potential future harms or commit crimes of necessity. 

 1. We prefer to stop crime before it happens rather than attempt to heal after it, therefore deterrence is the most important aspect of the prison system 
We balance deterrence with respecting people’s human rights and dignities.

References

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This page was last edited on Monday, 3 Sep 2018 at 09:18 UTC