Essay Sample: Offender Incarceration in America (Punitive vs. Rehabilitative Approach)

Published: 2022-03-11 22:12:23
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Research paper

Offender incarceration in the United States has taken a new direction since the 1970's (Phelps, 2011). It is irrefutable that incarceration is not meant to be pleasant. However, in the recent years, there has been a turn towards more punitive rather than rehabilitative measures taken toward convicted individuals. Whereas in the past it was the responsibility of the prisons to ensure that there are programs and strategies to make there is the development of individuals, it has now become up to the inmates themselves to seek out opportunities to better themselves. The general public opinion is that criminals should be kept away from the rest of the population to obtain a safer society. The measure of the effectiveness of rehabilitation of incarcerates is based degrees of participation of inmates, availability of specialized treatment facilities, and the level of commitment of the staff in prisons to the offering of services. The implication of this belief by voters, lawmakers, and policymakers is that there has been a shift in incarceration in the US, with the system resorting to more punitive rather than rehabilitative measures.

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Rehabilitative Approach to Offender Incarceration

Before 1970, the approach to incarceration was mainly rehabilitative (Phelps, 2011). There was a special focus on transforming convicted individuals into law-abiding and productive citizens. A lot was being invested in programs that will help make the life of convicts in prison easier, and enable them to fit into the society and live a crime-free life upon being released. The public policy was characterized with strategies aimed at the transformation of inmates to help them better their lives and to lower the rates of recidivism. The rehabilitative approach to offender incarceration may not be 100 percent effective, but to some extent, it protects individuals from abuse in the legal environment, that is, prisons. Although there lacks any empirical evidence to back the fact that rehabilitative process helps inmates fit back into the society, it is apparent that individuals who undergo rehabilitation fit better into the society after serving their sentences relative to those who do not undergo the process.

However, from the 1970's, there has been a change in public policy about incarceration. The center of incarceration is no longer rehabilitation but punishment. Data from 1979 to 2015 indicates that the ratio of educational staff to inmates has been decreasing indicating that educational programming is no longer being emphasized in prisons (McMichael & Viscusi, 2017).

The Current Public Policy on Incarceration in the United States

The current public policy on incarceration in the US has seen the number of people incarcerated rise dramatically (Travis, 2014). A good example of punitive punishment is the departure from the procedural protection of individuals from being abused in the legal sphere, that is, protection of prisoners and suspects. Sex offenders, for instance, have had their details published on different forms of public media. The effect of this is that there is a lot of public outcry towards the criminal making the government amend laws on sexual offenses based on the opinion of the public rather than substantial evaluation (Ramirez, 2013). The effect is that severe laws are adopted against sexual offenders. It is done with consideration towards the experiences of the victims and their kin. The victim is regarded a representative of a collective group rather than an individual. The victim represents those who have suffered harm in this model. The punitive model is based on the emotions of those the victims of crime which justify the approach to crime in this model, that is, punitive approach.

Although the punitive model may seem to offer a quick solution to the existing problems regarding curbing crime, this is only in the short term (McMichael & Viscusi, 2017). In the long-term, there has been observed that what harsh laws on some criminal offenses do is that they increase the number of people arrested for that particular offense but has no effect regarding the lowering of crime rates. It has been witnessed that since the adoption of the punitive model, the number of people incarcerated has dramatically increased indicating that the model is not effective concerning lowering crime rates.

Reasons for Shift from Rehabilitative Ideal

The shift from rehabilitative ideals of incarceration was motivated by the belief that the existing programs and techniques aimed at transforming convicts lacked evidence of being successful. There is a lack of empirical evidence that supports the idea that rehabilitative ideals are successful in preparation of inmates for life after prison. The general public opinion is that people and mainly criminals cannot be changed (Ramirez, 2013). Therefore, many believe that there is no point in persisting with rehabilitative techniques because they will not work anyway.

From cost and benefits analysis, it became apparent that it is not beneficial to continue with the rehabilitative model of incarceration (Baker et al., 2014). The rehabilitative model requires a significant investment of money especially in programs used for the education of inmates to make them fit for getting back into the society. Despite the heavy requirements in regarding finances, there is no guarantee that there will be reduced rates of recidivism and that the inmates will be able to live crime-free post-imprisonment lives. In fact, studies indicate that more than two-thirds of convicted felons are likely to repeat their offenses despite going through the rehabilitation process (McMichael & Viscusi, 2017). For this reason, there was a need to change the approach to incarceration.

Role of Public Policy and Public Opinion in the Evolution of Incarceration in America

The public policy has played a significant role in crafting incarceration in America. The current outlook of incarceration in the US is a result of the deliberate and systematic strategy. In the recent past, it has been witnessed that policymakers and legislators have strived to expand the prison infrastructure and contain lawbreakers in a kind of a warehouse for long periods of time.

The power to make policies on incarceration does not lie with experts but with the voters, legislators, and policymakers. For most voters and politicians, being tough on crime is synonymous to the serious imposition of heavy penalties on criminals (Baker et al., 2014). For this reason, the legislators who are politicians would not want to appear as being soft on crime to the public hence they tend to advocate for longer jail terms and heavy penalties for lawbreakers. The effect of this is that laws have been put in place to emphasize on punishing offenders and there is little regard for their rehabilitation.

Advocacy for cheaper measures to contain crime is a reason why incarceration evolved from rehabilitative to punitive. The public and law enforcer both agree that making crime expensive by imposing heavy fines and long imprisonments on those convicted of breaking the law will keep potential criminals from breaking the law. Most are of the opinion that it is more "economical" to punish crime to make people shy from crime. There is the belief that investing in rehabilitative strategies focused on the prevention of crime by ensuring those convicted are reformed ensuring low recidivism rates and preventing potential criminals from committing a crime (Baker et al., 2014).

The popular public opinion on making the society safer is getting rid of the criminals (Ramirez, 2013). It has had a significant influence on the evolution of incarceration in the US. The effect of this is that prisons have been turned into warehouses where those that are deemed unfit in the society are kept. There is little concern about the rehabilitation of these group of individuals. Initially, the reason for the evolution from rehabilitative to punitive incarceration was to lower the rates of crime by making it costly. Laws have been put in place that imposes heavy penalties and lengthy jail terms on those who break the law. With time, however, the consequences of the change has done little to reduce the rate of crime but has only increased the number of people incarcerated (Ramirez, 2013). The reason is the method did not include measures to ensure that the rates of recidivism are reduced and lacks an effective strategy to reform convicts.

There is lack of evidence that rehabilitative methods are effective in transforming convicted individuals into law-abiding citizens (Baker et al., 2014). In the past, there have been measures in place to rehabilitate individuals, but there is no evidence that they work. The rates of recidivism have not reduced despite the rehabilitative measures in place. For this reason, there has been a change in the approach to incarceration. The public policy on incarceration is more about making crime appear costly rather than making individuals less prone to committing a crime. It has seen a turn to the approach to crime, with the new strategy taking a "tough on crime" focus.

The public policy on some crimes differs from others. The public policy on juvenile crimes is more of rehabilitative than punitive, unlike crimes committed by adults. For, juveniles, the general public opinion is that there should be strategies to rehabilitate them such as psychological therapy other than measures such as imprisonment. Also, for non-violent drug abuse, the general public opinion is that the people convicted of crimes in this category should be referred for rehabilitative help rather than imprisonment (Baker et al., 2014).


Since the 1970's, there has been an evolution in the offender incarceration in America, from rehabilitative to punitive approach. The rehabilitative approach was mainly concerned with transforming individuals and lowering the rates of recidivism. The main reasons for the change from rehabilitative to punitive approach is that there is lack of empirical evidence as to the success of rehabilitative methods and the public opinion and policy which favor the getting rid of criminals by locking them away. Punitive model is only effective in the short-term but causes societal problems in the long-term. The public policy on juvenile offenders and non-violent drug abusers are different from the policy on other crimes.


Baker, T., Falco Metcalfe, C., Berenblum, T., Aviv, G., & Gertz, M. (2014). Examining Public Preferences for the Allocation of Resources to Rehabilitative Versus Punitive Crime Policies. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 26(5), 448-462.

McMichael, B., & Kip Viscusi, W. (2017). The Punitive Damages Calculus: The Differential Incidence of State Punitive Damages Reforms. Southern Economic Journal, 84(1), 82-97.

Phelps, M. (2011). Rehabilitation in the Punitive Era: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality in U.S. Prison Programs. Law & Society Review, 45(1), 33-68.

Ramirez, M. (2013). PUNITIVE SENTIMENT. Criminology, 51(2), 329-364.

Travis, J. (2014). Assessing the State of Mass Incarceration: Tipping Point or the New Normal?. Criminology & Public Policy, 13(4), 567-577.

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Essay Sample: Offender Incarceration in America (Punitive vs. Rehabilitative Approach). (2022, Mar 11). Retrieved from

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