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Harsh Punishment Backfires, Researcher Says

Social, Job Skills Reduce Recidivism

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Behind Bars

Punishment Behind Bars

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The current prison system puts too much emphasis on harsh punishment and not enough on rehabilitation and simply doesn't work, according to a criminal justice expert. Focusing on reducing prison populations and offering job skill training could greatly reduce recidivism, research shows.

The current system only provides a breeding ground for more aggressive and violent behavior, according to Joel Dvoskin, PhD of the University of Arizona.

Aggression Breeds Aggression

"The current design of prison systems doesn't work," said Dvoskin, in a news release. "Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence."

"Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviors, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want," Dvoskin said.

In his up-coming book, "Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending," Dvoskin says behavior modification and social learning principles can work inside prison just as they do outside.

Short-Term Solutions Ineffective

"For example, systematic reinforcement of pro-social behaviors is a powerful and effective way to change behavior, but it has never been used as a cornerstone of corrections," he said. Dvoskin said that a one-size-fits-all punishment approach can change behavior, but usually only works in the short term.

"We need to know what may be behind the criminal behavior to know what the best treatment is," he said. "A person who commits crimes when drunk but not when sober is likely suffering from an alcohol problem. Treating the alcohol problem may diminish the criminal behavior."

Reducing the Prison Population

The rising prison population with the corresponding lack of increase in prison staff has reduced the ability of prison systems to supervise work programs that allow prisoners to build skills. "This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison," Dvoskin said.

Therefore, the priority should be placed on decreasing prison populations, he said: "This can be done by paying more attention to those with the highest risk of violent behavior rather than focusing on lesser crimes, such as minor drug offenses."

Source: Workshop: "Using Social Science to Prevent Violent Crime," Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, University of Arizona College of Medicine Saturday, Aug. 8, Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

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