Perceptions of punishment : inmates and staff rank the severity of prison versus intermediate sanctions

by Joan R. Petersilia, Elizabeth Deschenes

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Proponents of the newer intermediate sanctions argue that there are "equivalencies" of punishment between community-based and prison sentences and that, at some level of intensity, community-based programs have roughly the same punitive "bite." There is little research, however, on the relative severity of intensive supervision in comparison to other sanctions. This study was designed to examine how offenders and staff in Minnesota rank the severity of various criminal sanctions and which particular sanctions they judge equivalent in punitiveness. In addition, the authors explored how both groups rank the difficulty of commonly imposed probation conditions and which offender background characteristics are associated with perceptions of sanction severity. The results suggest that there are intermediate sanctions that equate, in terms of punitiveness, with prison. For example, inmates viewed one year in prison as "equivalent" in severity to three years of intensive probation supervision or one year in jail, and they viewed six months in jail as equivalent to one year of intensive supervision. Although inmates and staff ranked most sanctions similarly, the staff ratings were higher for three and six months in jail and lower for one and five years probation. The two groups also differed on the difficulty of complying with individual probation conditions: staff judged most probation conditions as harder for offenders to comply with than did inmates. The results provide empirical evidence to support what many have suggested: it is no longer necessary to equate criminal punishment solely with prison. At some level of intensity and length, intensive probation is equally severe as prison and may actually be the more dreaded penalty. The results should give policymakers and justice officials pause, particularly those who suggest they are imprisoning such a large number of offenders not to use prison's ability to incapacitate and rehabilitate, but rather to get "tough on crime."

Originally published in: The Prison Journal, v. 74, no. 3, September 1994, pp. 306-328.

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