When it comes to determining the purpose of corrections, many different people have many different ideas on what should dominate. Some argue that the most important sentencing goal of corrections is deterrence, as they argue that the right kind of system will provide both general and specific deterrence in the future. Others argue that the purpose of corrections is to incapacitate a person who might otherwise be a danger to society. Many believe that the United States has based its system almost entirely on retribution, as it seeks to punish harm more than account for other factors. The most important of these goals, though, is rehabilitation. Each person put through the criminal justice system has a story and has value, so it is up to the system to provide a structure where that person can be rehabilitated in a way that makes them less likely to commit future crimes and more likely to contribute in a positive way.
Rehabilitation centers on the concept that crime represents a deviation from societal and human norms. According to this theory, when a person commits a crime, that person has broken the fabric of society, and in addition to being punished, the person must go through some form of training that will allow the person to contribute positively in the future. In order to believe that this is a worthy goal, one must believe that people can be rehabilitated and that people have inherent value regardless of their wrongs. While many within the criminal justice system will argue otherwise, even the worst criminals are more than the worst thing they have ever done. On prominent writer noted that, deep down, every boy would rather steal second base than a car. The implication is that all people begin in the same way, and through successful rehabilitation, it may be possible to get those people back in line.
There is a second reason why rehabilitation makes so much sense. Part of the purpose of the criminal justice system is to provide a structure that protects the public. Some argue that harsh punishments protect the public by deterring crime in the future. Research, however, suggests that the majority of criminals do not think before they act or act under some kind of mental illness or duress. When those factors are present, people cannot be deterred because they do not take into account the costs of their actions. Rehabilitation is a better approach to protecting the public in the future.
When people are rehabilitated, they may go through some kind of program that is targeted to their needs. For some, this might mean drug and alcohol rehab. Others might need to go through a course where they discuss why they committed a violent act. Others need anger management in order to get their emotions under control. Others still may need school classes where they can learn skills and feelings that are different than what they have picked up on the streets or in jail. The most important thing about rehabilitation is that it satiates the human desire to learn. When people are not learning good, productive skills, they are learning negative skills from people in prison who are more than willing to teach these negative things. Rehabilitation provides people with a chance to come out of prison and get a job or lead an otherwise productive life. This cuts down on recidivism rates and makes everyone safer at the end of the day. It is also a much more humane approach than many would propose today.
- Seiter, Richard P. Corrections: An Introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.