Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing

Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing

Custodial sentencing is where an offender spends time in a prison or other institution as a punishment for their crime.

Aims of custodial sentencing: There are four main aims. Deterrence is the idea that being in prison should be an unpleasant experience, so should put off the offender from convicting a crime in the future, and should put off would-be offenders from committing crimes in the first place. This is based on the behaviourist idea of operant conditioning. Incapacitation is another aim, referring to the offender being taken out of society as they are a danger to the public, for example a serial killer. Retribution refers to making the offender suffer in some way, so they are seen to be ‘paying’ for their crime. The seriousness of the crime should be matched to an appropriately serious sentence (such as a prison sentence of several years). Finally, rehabilitation is another aim, different to retribution, as the idea is to reform the offender’s character so that they do not re-offend. This could be done through training and education inside of the prison.

Psychological effects of custodial sentencing: The main effects on those incarcerated include stress and depression, shown through much higher suicide and self-harm rates than in the general population. Another effect is institutionalisation, meaning that prisoners become accustomed to the prison way of life, making it hard for them to adjust to living on ‘the outside’. Prisonisation refers to the adoption of an ‘inmate code’, whereby certain behaviours usually seen as unacceptable are rewarded in the institution.

Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing, figure 1

Recidivism: This refers to re-offending. In 2013 it was found that 57% of offenders in the UK will re-offend within one year of release from an institution, and some studies have shown figures as high as 70%. The UK and US have some of the highest rates of recidivism in the world, whereas in Norway rates are the lowest in Europe. Norwegian prisons place much more emphasis on rehabilitation than retribution, although they have been criticised for being too ‘soft’.


  • The Prison Reform Trust (2014) found that 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported signs of psychosis, supporting that custodial sentencing causes stress and depression and suggesting that it may not be suitable for psychologically vulnerable individuals.
  • Many factors will affect an inmate’s experience of prison, such as the size, the type, the way it is run, the kind of inmates, and the individual’s own personality. It is hard therefore to make general conclusions about the effects and effectiveness of prison.
  • Davies and Raymond (2000) concluded that prisons do little to rehabilitate or deter offenders, and that despite this, government ministers often exaggerate the benefits of custodial sentencing to appear ‘tough on crime’. This weakens the use of prisons and similar institutions as an effective way of dealing with offending behaviour.

Behaviour Modification in Custody

Behaviour modification programmes aim to reinforce obedient or desirable behaviour in offenders, based on the behaviourist principle that all behaviour is learned (so undesirable behaviour can be ‘unlearned’). Undesirable behaviour should therefore be punished to reduce the likelihood of such behaviour being repeated.

Token economy: This can be used in prisons. Desirable behaviours, such as avoiding conflict and keeping a cell tidy, can be rewarded with tokens (secondary reinforcers) which can be exchanged for a primary reinforcer- something desirable such as extra food or a phone call home. Non-compliance or disobedience results in tokens and their associated privileges being withheld.

Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing, figure 1

Changing behaviour: To make this process more manageable, a desirable behaviour, such as avoiding conflict, is broken down into more achievable sub-steps, such as working well in a group. The same behaviours would be rewarded by every person (prison officer) the offender comes into contact with.

Hobbs and Holt (1976) found that there was a significant difference in positive behaviours amongst a group of young offenders undergoing a token economy system, compared to a non-token economy group, suggesting it is effective in modifying behaviour.


  • The only criteria needed to establish an effective token economy system is consistency of approach from prison staff. Other than this, there is no specialist training necessary to implement it. This is a strength of token economies, as they are easy to use.
  • Token economies may only be effective in the prison, as once the offender is released the rewards for good behaviour may no longer exist. Therefore, token economies may not lead to long-term rehabilitation.
  • Token economies may only lead to a superficial change in behaviour, not tackling the root cause of criminal behaviour. Other approaches such as anger management may provide better solutions for this, therefore weakening token economies as a method for dealing with offending behaviour.

Anger Management

Cognitive behaviour treatment: Novaco (1975) suggested that thought processes trigger emotional arousal, which then leads to aggressive or criminal acts. In such individuals, anger arises more quickly. Anger management aims to identify the signs which trigger anger, and learn techniques to calm down and deal with a situation more positively, without the need to resort to violence. There are three stages:Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing, figure 1

  1. Cognitive preparation: the offender reflects on past experiences and actions to identify what triggers their anger and how they interpret situations (for instance, seeing a person looking at them and interpreting this as a sign of hostility). They are taught to try to interpret such situations differently.
  2. __Skill acquisition: __offenders are taught a range of techniques to help them deal with anger and to approach anger-triggering situations differently. They may include positive self-talk, communicating more effectively, and relaxation techniques.
  3. __Application practice: __offenders practise their skills through techniques such as role play, where previous anger-inducing situations are re-enacted by the therapist and offender, in order to use more rational and calm responses.

Keen et al (2000) looked at the effects of the ‘National Anger Management Package’ in the UK, which worked with young offenders. Following initial issues with offenders taking the programme seriously, results showed that offenders reported increased awareness of anger management difficulties, and more self-control.


  1. Anger management involves cognitive, behavioural and social techniques, recognising the complexity of anger as an emotional response. This therefore strengthens the technique as a way of dealing with offending behaviour.
  2. Anger management aims to change the cognitive causes of anger, rather than superficially changing behaviour (as in token economy techniques). Therefore, this technique should be more likely to lead to long-lasting behavioural change. However, the evidence for this is very limited, perhaps because the role play situations cannot account for all possible anger-triggering scenarios in real life. Therefore, the long-term effect of anger management is in question.
  3. Evidence suggests that not all criminals, or crimes, are motivated by anger. Loza and Loza-Fanous (1999) found no difference in levels of anger amongst violent and non-violent offenders. Therefore, anger management is a limited technique to deal with offending behaviour.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice involves an offender reconciles with the victim of their crime, so that they see the impact of what they have done (and that victims can be empowered). Victims take an active role in this process, and offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for the effect of their crime. This involves a managed programme of collaboration between offender and victim. Supervised meetings are held with a mediator, where the victim can explain to the offender the effects of the crime on them and the emotional distress caused. This allows the offender to see the full consequences of their actions.

Key features: Different restorative justice programmes have different features, but there are a few that are shared by all:

  • Focus on acceptance of responsibility, rather than punishment
  • Victims (usually referred to as ‘survivors’) and offenders meet outside of a courtroom setting
  • Active, not passive, involvement of all parties
  • Focus on positive outcomes for the survivor and offender

Sometimes, face-to-face meetings may not take place, but instead the offender may pay compensation to the survivor. The scheme can be varied to match the needs of the survivor and the offender.

Dealing with Offending Behaviour: Custodial Sentencing, figure 1

The Restorative Justice Council (RJC): This is an independent body which sets standards for restorative justice and supports those involved in the process. The RJC supports the use of restorative justice in many areas- prisons, workplaces and so on.


  • Unlike custodial sentencing, restorative justice is flexible and can be changed to adapt to the needs of those involved, which is a strength of this method of dealing with offending behaviour.
  • Restorative justice may not lead to positive outcomes, if the offender is motivated by a desire to avoid prison (rather than remorse) or if the victim is motivated by revenge or retribution. Therefore, restorative justice may not be suitable for all crimes.
  • Restorative justice can be expensive, required skilled, trained professionals, time-consuming and have high drop-out rates (as the offender or victim may drop out at the last moment). Therefore, the use of them in dealing with offending behaviour may be much less cost-effective than other methods.
This way of measuring crime involves a criminal reporting the types and amounts of crimes they have committed.
Your answer should include: Offender / Surveys
This type of offender profiling originated in the USA.
Your answer should include: Top-Down / Top / Down
This involves using the locations of crimes to build up information about the characteristics of the offender.
Your answer should include: Geographical / Profiling
This was proposed by Lombroso, that criminals were genetic throwbacks biologically different from non-criminals.
Your answer should include: Atavistic / Form
Research has found an 11% reduction in the volume of grey matter in this area of antisocial individual’s brains.
Your answer should include: Prefrontal / Cortex
Eysenck proposed three dimensions to a person’s personality- introversion/extraversion, neuroticism/stability and what?
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Your answer should include: Hostile / Attribution / Bias
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Your answer should include: Differential / Association / Theory
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This method of dealing with offending behaviour works best in a prison or institution setting, but may not work outside of this.
Your answer should include: Token / Economy