Incapacitation Theory Explained


Criminal justice systems in today’s world utilize incapacitation theory as a method to stop the activities of habitual criminals. The goal is to create long-term sentences that are served in a way to incapacitate the offender so they can no longer be a threat to society. It removes the ability of an individual to commit a future crime by removing them from society instead of attempting to rehabilitate them or prevent them from making such a decision in the future.

What Happens with a Longer Prison Sentence?

In the 1990s, the United States experienced a very sharp drop in the rate of crime across virtually all geographic and demographic areas. Part of this drop is attributed to the effects of incapacitation theory. When the sentences for a crime were lengthened to do habitual criminal activities, such as the “three strikes laws,” then criminals were remove from the general society. This prevented them from committing a future crime.

To further encourage this effect, many states in the US changed their standard sentencing statutes for a wide variety of crimes. The number of credits that a prisoner could earn to reduce their sentence were reduced at the same time. Some states even passed laws which required a prisoner to serve 85% of their sentence before they’d be eligible for parole.

Since the 1990s, recidivism rates have continued to climb from around 70%. When prisoners are released early because of cost problems, there are corresponding rises to local crime rates. The balance of cost and societal safety is always a point of emphasis within the implementation of incapacitation theory.

There are other drastic examples of incapacitation theory at work. In the US, certain sexually-based offenses qualify under the criminal justice system to have sentences indefinitely extended due to their ongoing threat toward society. Elsewhere around the world, the idea of cutting off the hand of a thief is also an example of incapacitation theory, because the idea of losing hands makes it more difficult to remove items without permission.

What Are the Benefits of Incapacitation Theory?

The primary benefit of incapacitation theory is that it removes habitual offenders from a society. Instead of committing multiple crimes and putting people at risk, the offender is incapacitated in the criminal justice system and not allowed to return. They receive limited interactions with the outside world at best.

It is also a way to control high-risk individuals who commit violent crime. By requiring ongoing evaluations for violent offenders, even after a sentence has been completed, the society gains a benefit by not needing to worry about an individual attempting to harm them.

It is also an effective deterrent to crime. When individuals have a decision between a moment of gratification and a lifetime of incapacitation, the choice to commit a crime becomes more difficult. There will always be some that prefer prison to society, but the implementation of incapacitation theory helps to weed out those who are sitting on the fence or looking for a quick thrill.

Challenges of the Incapacitation Theory

Cost is the primary challenge of the incapacitation theory from a US perspective. Housing habitual felons for a lifetime sentence has had rising costs since the 1990s. In some areas, the cost of housing a single prisoner exceeds $25,000 per year. At some point, the costs of housing habitual offenders exceeds what the monetary base of a society is able to contribute, which means certain offenders will be released early under the risk of recidivism.

There is also a question of morality. Is it right to remove an individual from society to keep the many safe, but at the expense of helping the individual who has been incapacitated? Some may argue that people need to be punished for their crimes, but what is the definition of a “just” punishment? Moral standards are often defined in personal terms, so developing a consensus in a society can be difficult.

Incapacitation also has an unintended negative effect for the families of the individuals who have been taken out of society. It keeps parents away from children, creates societal stigmas, and can even limit familial employment opportunities.

Incapacitation theory is not without its controversies. It may be effective in certain situations, but it may also tread upon that individual’s basic rights. There may never be a perfect balance between cost and imprisonment, but there must also be safety that can be found within society and that requires a legal structure.

How effective this theory will ultimately be in modern terms will be judged by history.