8.4. Incapacitation

David Carter


Rooted in the concepts of banishing individuals from society, incapacitation is the removal of an individual (from society), for a set amount of time, so as they cannot commit crimes (in society) for an amount of time in the future. In British history, this often occurred on Hulks. Hulks were large ships that carried convicted individuals off to far away lands. The point was to not allow them to be able to commit crimes in their community any longer.


In the 1950s, punishment became much more of a political topic in the United States, and this is one of the issues that started this section, our perceptions of the fear of crime. Lawmakers, justicians, and others began to campaign with their toughness on crime, using the fear of crime and the criminal element to benefit their agendas. One of the examples of being tough on crime was the use of long periods of incarceration in general. This could be considered as collective incapacitation, or the incarceration of large groups of individuals to remove their ability to commit crimes for a set amount of time in the future.

Since this time, and most greatly exacerbated in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been the increasing use of punishment by prison sentences. Thus, we saw rapid growth in the prison population in the United States. The ‘politicization of punishment’ increased the overall prisoner levels in two ways.   First, by changing the views toward the discretion allowed to decision makers, we have gotten tougher on crime. In turn, more people are being sentenced to prison that may have otherwise gone to a specialized probation or community sanction alternatives. Second, these same attitudes have led to harsher and lengthier punishments for certain crimes. Offenders are being sent away for longer sentences, which has caused the intake-to-release ratio to change, causing enormous buildups of the prison population.

The incapacitative ideology followed this design for several decades. In the early 1990s, policies were implemented that would target individuals more specifically. These would come to be known as “three-strikes” policies. These policies would incarcerate an individual for greater lengths of time, based on prior offenses. The selective incapacitation philosophy incarcerated individuals for longer periods of time than others. Thus, it removed their individual ability to commit crimes (in society) for greater periods of time in the future than others.

There are mixed feelings about selective and collective incapacitation. Policymakers would promote their utility through anecdotal examples of locking certain offenders away, in order to help assuage the fear of crime. Others have offered that there are minimal savings at best, stating that these goals do not achieve the intended results as previously suggested. [1] Future styles of selective incapacitation that have evolved include tighter crime control strategies that incorporate variated sentencing strategies to selectively incapacitate the higher rate offender. Others opt for tougher parole procedures to retain the hardened criminals longer. In sum, we do see a definite shift from the insignificance of collective incapacitation, to a more selective approach.

In all, we are still left with the same questions, does it work? And, at what cost? Do these lengthier punishments for particular crimes have an effect by selectively incapacitating hardened criminals?  Are there other methods that seem the same or are more effective than the ones already in practice? This takes us to the last of the four main punishment ideologies, rehabilitation.

  1. Blokland, A.A.J., & Nieuwbeerta, P. J (2007). Selectively incapacitating frequent offenders: Costs and benefits of various penal scenarios. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 23: 327. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-007-9033-3

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