The underlying values of mass incarceration

Throughout history, governments and scholars have invoked various rationales for removing people from society and keeping them in prisons in response to criminal behavior. The three values below ground American corrections practice today. 

  • Retribution. A theory of justice in which the purpose of criminal penalties is to punish individuals for crimes committed. Retributive models are retroactive in nature: they punish what has already occurred and contemplate no effect on future behavior.
  • Incapacitation. A theory of crime prevention in which prison’s purpose is to separate people from society and thereby limit their ability to commit additional crimes.
  • Deterrence. A theory of crime prevention that posits that by seeing punishment enacted on others—or by experiencing punishment oneself—a person will be motivated to avoid crime in order to avoid such consequences.In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences, a nonpartisan social science research body, concluded in a comprehensive literature review on incarceration trends in the United States that these values replaced an earlier period of rehabilitative ideology in American criminal justice policy. See Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014), 320-33. For definitions of retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence, see Kevin Carlsmith, John Darley, and Paul Robinson, “Why Do We Punish? Deterrence and Just Deserts as Motives for Punishment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83, no. 2 (2002), 284-99, 285-86.