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Massive Prison Release!

February 20, 2009

When sociologists attempt to understand the social purpose of prisons and jails, some conclude that they provide society one or more functions: deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and/or protection. Let’s quickly define each of these ideas. Deterrence is the idea that imprisonment will discourage future criminal acts by rational people. Rehabilitation is a process in which criminals are given a set of life skills that increase the likelihood they will adapt to the challenges of society without having to resort to criminal behavior. Retribution involves giving victims and law-abiding citizens in society reprisal against wrongdoers. Protection refers to society physically and socially isolating criminals from potential victims.

A panel of three federal judges in San Francisco have ordered the early release of up to one-third of the prisoners in the California correctional system. This could be as many as 57,000 inmate releases over the next three years. The judges have reportedly reached this decision based upon concern that overcrowding could create a dangerous environment for the inmates.

Would you like to comment on this issue? If so, start by selecting a discussion point below and responding to it:

1) Keeping the above functions of imprisonment in mind, which functions (if any) do you think might be violated by the early release of inmates into society?

2) What might be some alternative ways to address prison overcrowding than through early release?

3) Historically, when economic hard times occur, the crime rate increases as the state’s operational budget for prisons decreases. This combination often leads to prison overcrowding. Do you think this problem might spread to states other than California?

4) Do you think prison might serve other purposes than those listed above? If so, explain them.

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