There is little research evidence to suggest that prison is a deterrent. The opposite is often true: once someone has served a sentence of imprisonment, they are more likely to re-offend. The likelihood of being caught is a more effective deterrent than the prospect of a long prison sentence.
The re-offending rate for people given non-custodial sentences is usually lower than those given prison sentences. It is difficult to make direct comparisons because the profile of those sentenced to prison tends to be different from that of offenders given alternative sentences. However, research in the UK indicates that the re-offending rate for former prisoners is significantly higher than those given court orders for non-custodial sentences.
Figures from 2016 show that more than 10.35 million people are held in penal institutions worldwide, which represents an increase of almost 20 per cent since the year 2000. On the whole, increasing rates of imprisonment means that prisons are increasingly outgrowing their capacity.
The range of alternatives is wide and should be tailored to suit the individual needs of each case. Alternatives include fines, drug treatment and supervision orders, electronic monitoring with conditions and supervision, restorative justice measures involving the victim and community, specific programmes to deal with the causes of crime (e.g. treatment programmes), probation orders, community service, and conditional and suspended sentences.
Most offenders re-enter society no better equipped to avoid a life of crime than when they were first arrested. Most have poor education, limited employment experience and dysfunctional families. They often suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. After a prison sentence, they experience social stigma, have no money and find it hard to find a job or somewhere to live. Alternatives to prison can provide solutions to at least some of these problems. For example, they may require attendance at detoxification and dependency treatment programmes. Non-custodial sentences also help offenders to keep the support networks they have in the community.
The cost of imprisoning someone is generally far higher than the costs of a non-custodial sentence. Spending on an ever-growing prison population diverts funds from essential social, economic and healthcare services.
People in pre-trial detention are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, at the pre-trial stage of the criminal justice process, detainees are particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse and intimidation by interrogators. Alternatives, such as bail, reporting or curfews, help to avoid the risk of potential physical and mental harm, preserve the presumption of innocence, and give the defendant a better chance of preparing for and receiving a fair trial.
A prison sentence often punishes families and children as well as the offender. It is estimated that millions of children worldwide have a parent in prison and tens of thousands are living in prison with their parent, most often their mother. Where the family member in prison is the breadwinner, families outside often face serious financial hardship, if not destitution.