Incapacitation (penology)

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Incapacitation in the context of sentencing philosophy refers to the effect of a sentence in terms of positively preventing (rather than merely deterring) future offending.

Imprisonment incapacitates the prisoner by physically removing them from the society against which they are deemed to have offended. Long term imprisonment with the intention to incapacitate is often used by criminal justice systems against habitual criminals who recidivate. Incapacitation also focuses on removing the ability of the offenders to commit future crimes.[1]

In his 2004 article, Levitt attributes part of the decline in the crime rate seen beginning in the mid 1990s to the inability of inmates to recidivate as sentences for crimes, especially for repeat offenders, had been greatly increase. Examples of these laws include back-to-back life sentences, three-strikes sentencing, and other habitual offender laws. In the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 3553 states that one of the purposes of criminal sentencing is to "protect the public from further crimes of the defendant." Quite simply, those incarcerated can not commit further crimes against society.


The crime rate in the United States unexpectedly fell sharply in the 1990s, in almost all demographic and geographic areas, and a portion of the drop has been attributed to the incapacitation effect. Beginning in the mid-1990s, sentences began to lengthen due to habitual felon statutes begin passed in many states as well as changes in sentencing statutes which reduced the credit inmates could amass to reduce the amount of time they were held in prison.[1]'

A similar drop in crime was noted in Australia, where the marked increase in the prison population was termed a" very blunt instrument of crime control but it is an important instrument, nonetheless(Weatherburn, 2006)." The paper further states that achieving a 10 percent reduction in the 2006 burglary rate an increase imprisonment of 34 percent would be needed. Doing so would increase cost by an additional $26 million per year. Further research was recommended as to the cost-effectiveness of this method of controlling crime.

Cutting off a hand of a thief is also an example; this acts to prevent further thefts in a drastic manner, in addition to it having a perceived deterrent effect on others.


Weatherburn, Don, Jiuzhao Hua, and Steve Moffatt. "How Much Crime Does Prison Stop-The Incapacitation Effect of Prison on Burglary." IJPS 2 (2006)

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