Rational repulsion.

When people learn of the generous living conditions Anders Breivik will experience in Norwegian prison, many are horrified and believe he deserves to experience a less hospitable environment. Dylan Matthews argues that this intuitive repulsion is irrational:

It turns out there’s a pretty extensive literature on the effects of harsh prison conditions. One finding that is growing more and more accepted is that harsh sentences, if anything, increase recidivism (or, the propensity of prisoners to reoffend once released). The economists Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro exploited (pdf) the fact that the federal prison system assigns prisoners to different security levels based on a numeric score indicating  how much supervision that inmate needs. There are then cutoffs for assignment to each security level. Those scoring above a certain cutoff get medium security, those below it get low security, and so forth. Chen and Shapiro compared prisoners with scores just above and just below cutoffs to see how being assigned to a higher security level affected recidivism.

Their finding? Those at the border who end up placed in a higher security prison reoffend at a significantly higher rate than those at the border place in lower-security prisons. For those right at the border, the increase is about 10 to 15 percent, but if you take a broader view, it could reach as high as 42 percent. That’s a serious increase in crime that, if Chen and Shapiro are right, is easily preventable by putting prisoners in less-harsh conditions.

This empirical data is important and obviously relevant to anyone who thinks the criminal justice system should be structured in accordance with what best reduces crime. That approach to justice, however, is a controversial one, and I think it quite clearly doesn’t underlie any repulsion felt about Breivik’s living conditions.

The reason people disapprove of comfort in prison isn’t because they think this will cause more crime. Their reaction isn’t dependent on data about deterrence. The feeling, it seems to me, is entirely retributive and thereby blind to such facts. That is, even if removing Breivik’s laptop and en-suite bathroom would increase the likelihood of his one day reoffending, the people repulsed by his living conditions would surely want them removed anyway because they don’t think that he deserves such luxuries as part of his punishment. They want to design his prison sentence to be painful, not to produce a reformed man.

This isn’t to endorse that logic. It’s just to note that invoking studies of recidivism is surely a non-sequitur.


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