Crime and punishment has been a difficult issue for much of human history. Ancient societies administered penalties intended to punish. The ultimate of these, of course, was the death penalty, which has been meted out for crimes ranging from murder to adultery. Islamic law in its traditional form, for example, sets the punishment for thievery as removal of the right hand.
Imprisonment as a penalty in and of itself is a relatively recent phenomenon. Up until the 18th century or so, western prisons generally held individuals for a short period of time until a more physical and direct punishment was administered. While severe crimes were punished with death, lesser offenses tended to draw punishments designed to humiliate the offender such as the ducking stool or scold’s bridle. Imprisonment and hard labor as an end in themselves, though, grew in popularity. In modern America, imprisonment is almost the default punishment.
The key word here is punishment. Many of those involved, recently or longer ago, in the creation of prisons and more recently their reform saw the prison as a place of rehabilitation. The goal of rehabilitating offenders is laudable, but seldom met. Indeed, many criminals leave prison better criminals rather than better men or women. At the same time, a truly rehabilitated criminal is no longer a danger to society. To the question of ‘should society focus on rehabilitation’ the obvious answer is yes.
However, the difficulty is exactly how rehabilitation is achieved. Prison, at least as it is used today, seldom reaches that goal. And detention is used for everything from vile murder (in countries and states that do not hand down the death penalty) to petty theft. An approach in which alternative and creative sentencing is used might be better. The truth is, though, that we do not really understand how to rehabilitate. In some cases, indeed, it may not be possible to rehabilitate certain individuals. So, to the question of ‘should’ we rehabilitate the answer is yes. To the question of ‘can’ the answer remains uncertain and unclear. Perhaps as technology improves and our understanding of the human mind increases, better ways of dealing with the criminal will be found.
In the mean time, the best society can do is open the door to rehabilitation…the door to better education, the door to a job on release (a difficult thing for many convicts to find) and hope some of them step through it. True, we can show real, lasting consequences, but we cannot force people to see the light. We can help with drug problems and mental health problems, but we cannot completely prevent people from going back to drugs once they are released. What we can do is show people that they can change. As of right now, I am not sure society is doing that right.