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Posted: December 15th, 2019

Selective incapacitation: is it an effective policy for reducing crime?

Selective incapacitation: is it an effective policy for reducing crime?

Selective incapacitation is a criminal justice policy that aims to identify and incarcerate offenders who are deemed to be the most dangerous or likely to reoffend, while diverting less serious offenders to alternative sanctions. The rationale behind this policy is to reduce crime by incapacitating the most prolific or violent criminals, while saving costs and resources by avoiding unnecessary imprisonment of low-risk offenders. However, the effectiveness and ethics of selective incapacitation have been widely debated and challenged by researchers and practitioners.

One of the main criticisms of selective incapacitation is that it relies on inaccurate and biased methods of predicting future criminal behavior. For example, some of the factors that are used to assess the risk of recidivism, such as age, gender, race, and prior criminal history, may reflect social inequalities and discrimination rather than individual propensities to commit crime (Monahan and Skeem 2014). Moreover, these factors may not capture the dynamic and complex nature of human behavior, which can change over time and context. Therefore, selective incapacitation may result in overestimating the risk of some offenders and underestimating the risk of others, leading to wrongful imprisonment or premature release.

Another criticism of selective incapacitation is that it violates the principle of proportionality, which states that the severity of punishment should match the gravity of the offense. By focusing on the characteristics of the offender rather than the nature of the crime, selective incapacitation may impose harsher sentences on offenders who commit minor offenses but are deemed to be high-risk, while imposing lighter sentences on offenders who commit serious offenses but are deemed to be low-risk. This may undermine the legitimacy and fairness of the criminal justice system, as well as the deterrence and rehabilitation effects of punishment (Tonry 2019).

Furthermore, selective incapacitation may have unintended and adverse consequences for society and individuals. For instance, by incarcerating a large number of offenders, especially those from disadvantaged and marginalized groups, selective incapacitation may exacerbate social problems such as poverty, unemployment, family disruption, and community disorganization, which may in turn increase the likelihood of crime (Clear 2007). Additionally, by isolating offenders from society and exposing them to harsh and degrading prison conditions, selective incapacitation may impair their physical and mental health, reduce their social and human capital, and increase their alienation and resentment, which may in turn decrease their chances of successful reintegration and desistance from crime (Cullen et al. 2011).

In conclusion, selective incapacitation is a controversial and contested policy that has not been proven to be an effective or ethical way of reducing crime. Rather than relying on crude and questionable methods of predicting future criminality, a more promising approach would be to adopt evidence-based and individualized practices that address the root causes and risk factors of crime, while respecting the rights and dignity of offenders and victims. Such practices may include providing offenders with adequate treatment, education, employment, housing, and social support, as well as involving them in restorative justice processes that foster accountability, empathy, and reconciliation.


Clear, Todd R. 2007. Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cullen, Francis T., Cheryl Lero Jonson, and Daniel S. Nagin. 2011. “Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism: The High Cost of Ignoring Science.” The Prison Journal 91 (3_suppl): 48S-65S.

Monahan, John, and Jennifer L. Skeem. 2014. “Risk Redux: The Resurgence of Risk Assessment in Criminal Sanctioning.” Federal Sentencing Reporter 26 (3): 158-166.

Tonry, Michael. 2019. “Proportionality in Sentencing.” Crime and Justice 48 (1): 107-166.


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