A researcher in the U.S. says that targeting prisoners' behaviour, reducing prison populations, and offering job skills may help decrease prisoner aggression and prevent recidivism.
Criminal justice expert Dr. Joel Dvoskin, of the University of Arizona, gave these suggestions to the American Psychological Association on Saturday.
"The current design of prison systems don't work. Overly punitive approaches used on violent, angry criminals only provide a breeding ground for more anger and more violence," said Dvoskin.
While making a presentation at the Association's 117th Annual Convention, Dvoskin talked about his upcoming book, entitled 'Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending', which examines why prisons are failing and what needs to change.
"Prison environments are replete with aggressive behaviours, and people learn from watching others acting aggressively to get what they want," Dvoskin said in an interview.
He said that applying behaviour modification and social learning principles could work in corrections.
"For example, systematic reinforcement of pro-social behaviours is a powerful and effective way to change behaviour, but it has never been used as a cornerstone of corrections," he said.
He further said that punishment could be effective in changing behaviour, but it would only works in the short term and immediately after the unwanted behaviour happened.
While there is a place for punishment, it should be used in psychologically informed and effective ways. However, punishment should not be one-size-fits-all, Dvoskin said.
"We need to know what may be behind the criminal behaviour to know what the best treatment is. 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 behaviour," he said.
He also stressed the need for decreasing prison populations.
"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 offences," he said.
Finally, he said, bringing work back into prisons could benefit prisoners by teaching them job skills and filling unmet job needs.
With the increase in the criminal population and lack of increase in prison staff, "there is not enough supervision to allow prisoners to work and build skills," Dvoskin said.
"This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison," he said.
The researcher also pointed out that growing up without fathers puts prisoners' children at risk for continuing the vicious cycle of criminal behaviour.
"If we don't make the changes now, we will see these numbers go up," he said.
Dvoskin, along with co-editors Jennifer Skeem, Ray Novaco and Kevin Douglas, wanted to find out what social science reveals about preventing and reducing violent crime.
"Our intention," said Dvoskin, "is to avoid the extreme partisan bickering about whether to be 'soft' or 'hard' on crime, but to combine social science and common sense so that our correctional systems can more effectively change behavior. After all, isn't that their job?"