By the early twenty-first century there were more than 9 million men, women, and children in prisons around the world. Before the mid-twentieth century, the number of imprisoned individuals worldwide had been far lower. For example, in 1880 England’s prison population stood at 32,000. By the early twenty-first century, the total prison population in England and Wales exceeded 80,000.
Prisons do not appear to have had much, if any, deterrent effect as shown by the explosion in prison populations, whereas capital punishment deters potentially violent offenders for whom the threat of imprisonment is not a sufficient deterrence, and offers at the individual level no possibility of reoffending.
Punishment and retribution
It is argued that prisons exact punishment on and secure retribution from those who have committed serious crimes from society’s perspective.
However, the victim or the victim’s relatives are the injured party, and they have no say on the punishment, do not receive any compensation for the injury suffered and do not have any opportunity to forgive the criminal, if they so wish.
The burgeoning prison populations have led to increasing costs on governments, some of which began to hand over prison management to the private firms in a process called privatization as a way to reduce costs. However, the savings, if any, are not significant because governments have exchanged the high capital expenditure on prisons for long-term revenue expenditure. Although privatization may reduce current short-term costs, it leads to increasing future long-term costs to society. While prisoners lose their liberty, society pays a huge and growing financial cost for their accommodation.
So it is not clear whether prisons do exact punishment or secure retribution from society’s perspective. They clearly do not exact punishment or secure retribution for the victim’s relatives.
On the other hand, capital punishment exacts punishment and retribution as it publicly displays the moral indignation not only of the victim’s relatives but society as a whole.
It is argued that prisons encourage the personal reform of those who are sent to prison. Certainly, they do provide governments the opportunity to spend taxation revenue on reforming criminals.
In China and the Soviet Union, imprisonment was historically used as a means of reforming the minds of criminals, by forcing prisoners to work in support of the state so that they may recognize the error of their ways.
However, if murder is a crime against the injured party, then the reformation of criminals is less important than punishment and retribution.