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Incarceration: History, Purpose, And Relationship To Crime

2778 words - 12 pages

In On the Normality of Crime, Emile Durkheim claims that “crime is necessary. It is linked to the basic conditions of social life, but on this very account is useful, for the conditions to which it is bound are themselves indispensable to the normal evolution of morality and law” (Durkheim, 1893). Since crime is not an abnormal or pathological condition, it is not a disease that can be “cured” through the application of punishment (Durkheim, 1893). In Durkheim’s view, the criminal is as indispensible to a properly functioning society as the law-abiding citizen; acts of crime help to demarcate and reinforce the boundaries of acceptable behavior- these boundaries could not be known if they ...view middle of the document...

Lewis Coser and Kai Erickson elaborated on Durkheim’s theory of crime by asserting that when a community imposes sanctions against deviant behavior, it reinforces the value or moral that was violated and “redfines the boundaries within which the norm exercises special jurisdiction” (Gusfield, 1968; p. 55). The imprisonment of criminals then, can be seen as a physical manifestation of this conceptual boundary creation- the walls of the prison form a physical boundary between those individuals labeled as criminals and the rest of the community. Of course, in the United States this interpretation is problematic because it assumes that the “community” is a homogenous entity and that norms and values are consistent across race, economic class, and geographical region. As Gusfield observes, certain values, such as the prohibitions against murder and rape, are nearly universal; not just across the US but also across different countries and cultures throughout the world (1968). Certain values, however, are not commonly observed, even within the same community. Drug use, gambling, prostitution, and other “victimless” crimes are often viewed with differing degrees of tolerance by different social groups within the same societies (Gusfield, 1968). Whether someone is punished for one of these behaviors then becomes an issue of whether he or she is a member of the social group that has the power to define the behavior as a crime.
History and Purpose of the Prison System in the United States
Deprivation of freedom within the walls of a prison is the primary means by which criminal offenders are punished in the United States. Whether the manifest purpose of this imprisonment is to address crime through the incapacitatation of those likely to reoffend, deterrence of would-be offenders, rehabilitation of offendors, or by exacting retribution against offenders is a product of the prevailing social and political mood at a given point in history (Johnson, Dobrzanska, & Palla, 2005; Mackenzie, 2001). As the concept of physical confinement of criminals in Western society has evolved from a means of simply warehousing offenders while they await execution or some other form of corporal punishment to a means of punishment in and of itself, the effectiveness of incarceration at reducing the occurrence of crime is a matter of some contention. The relationship between rates of incarceration and crime rates is a complicated one, and is effected by a number of intervening variables (King, Mauer, & Young, 2004; Levitt & Dubner, 2009; Pfaff, 2008). To say that incarceration reduces crime, or to even assume that the relationship between crime and incarceration is unidirectional, is an oversimplification of a complex relationship; a simple cause-and-effect relationship does not exist.
The replacement of corporal punishment with incarceration is largely a product of the intellectual Enlightenment of the 18th century (Bessler, 2009). Enlightenment era thinkers, such as Jeremy...

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