Children more optimistic about prisoner rehabilitation than adults

January 25, 2021
Adults don't see punishment as rehabilitative, although children do. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Adults don't see punishment as rehabilitative, although children do. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Though the United States has the highest number of incarcerated citizens of any country in the world, a new study suggests that American adults don’t view incarceration as being rehabilitative — a stark contrast to the optimism that children show about the same punishment.

In a new article published in Child Development, researchers examined groups of both children and adults in order to determine how they differed in their views of punishment and rehabilitation. The research stemmed from a general curiosity about how people in the U.S. feel about punishment given the high rates of incarceration in the country, according to study author James Dunlea, a doctoral student in the psychology department at Columbia University.

“I was puzzled by the justifications that people sometimes give, that punishment can perhaps make people better,” Dunlea said. “This is a thing that people will say, but then they treat people in a very inconsistent way with that.”

The research consisted of two studies, one with a group of 94 children and 94 adults and another with a group of 77 children.

The first study had both children and adults being given a description of a morally good (“nice”) or bad (“mean”) character who was punished for breaking the law by going to prison; control characters used for the study instead went on a business trip. Participants were asked to rate how nice or mean they thought each character was before and after the incarceration or trip on a five-point scale.

The researchers found that children reported that the “mean” characters would become “nicer” after being subjected to punishment/incarceration. However, the adults not only did not indicate that “mean” characters would improve at all from their time in prison, but that “nice” characters themselves would get worse from time spent incarcerated.

The second study looked at punishments of different severity levels – going to prison versus experiencing a time-out — and found that children still believed that “mean” characters would become more “nice” regardless of the type of punishment they experienced.

There are several reasons as to why this might be the case, not least of which is that much previous research has shown how children in general have higher levels of optimism, and they might be “applying it to the context of punishment,” Dunlea said.

Prior studies about optimism have found that telling children about a character who has perceived negative traits, such as not being smart or physically attractive, and asking about the future of that character often results in the children responding that the character would become smarter or more attractive.

“They might understand that punishment is a negative thing, but [think that] something positive must come out of punishment, Dunlea said. “They might be reporting that people are getting better as a result of punishment, simply because of optimism driving that.”

The same kind of previous research has indicated that optimism typically decreases over a person’s life, meaning that the differences in how adults responded to this new study may reflect such lower levels of general optimism, Dunlea said. However, there’s stronger evidence of other societal factors driving the stark difference in opinion.

“Adults have really robust ideas of what it might be like in a prison or jail, even if they themselves have not experienced incarceration,” Dunlea said. “Over the course of their lifetime, they’ve picked up stories from other people, they’ve picked up anecdotes in the media, and these representations of incarcerations are not nice. Adults know that there is incredible violence that goes on in jails and prisons. They know that it’s not a pleasant environment to live in.”

Accordingly, adults might be drawing on their ideas of what it’s like to be incarcerated, and concluding that a person would not become a better or more moral individual from that experience, Dunlea added.

Additionally, Dunlea said that while there isn’t much evidence to support it yet, he believes that there may be a motivated process behind the idea of punishment not leading to any sort of redemption.

“We know that adults are really negative toward people who are incarcerated, or who have been incarcerated in the past. So by saying that these individuals have not been redeemed as a result of their punishment, it gives them the justification to keep treating people badly, even after they have served their time in prison or jail,” Dunlea said. “I don’t have evidence in support of that from my own empirical work, but I think it could be going on.”

The way that American society treats people who had experienced incarceration of some sort is also likely driving individual thoughts regarding punishment and redemption, Dunlea said. Norms such as not hiring ex-convicts and some state policies of three-strike laws create a level of disenfranchisement that can be hard to overcome.

“For example, when people leave prison or jail and they can’t vote, that could send a message to somebody where they think, ‘Hm, this person doesn’t have the same rights as I do, there must be something that’s different about them than me. I’ve never been incarcerated, but they have, so that means that there must be something about them that can’t be fixed,’” Dunlea noted. “Because they don’t have those rights, that’s a signal that they haven’t been redeemed.”

The message that this study ultimately sends is that in the U.S., despite the fact that punishment is a common response, adults do not believe it works and do not think it leads to rehabilitation, Dunlea said.

“To me, as a researcher, that’s really fascinating,” Dunlea said. “We’re engaging in this huge societal process that costs a lot of money, that is very time-intensive to put somebody in a facility, keep them there for a long amount of time … yet people don’t really think that it is helping in the project of moral improvement.”

Dunlea said that further research into this topic will explore whether or not adults view alternatives to punishment and incarceration, such as social service or educational programs, as rehabilitative or not. He added that he will be exploring the role of cultural messaging in how it shapes people’s views on punishment and redemption, especially regarding the differences in that messaging across various countries.

“What I’d really like to be doing is to test people in different countries – for example, a European country versus the United States — and see whether people might be thinking differently about punishments or incarceration, specifically in these contexts,” Dunlea said. “If we do find that there are cross-cultural differences, that could suggest that cultural messages are really playing a powerful role in shaping people’s ideas about redemption.”

The article, “Children’s and Adults’ Views of Punishment as a Path to Redemption,” was published Jan. 19, 2021 in Child Development. It was authored by James Dunlea and Larisa Heiphetz, both of Columbia University.

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