How children view prison time as punishment

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  • There is limited research available on how people view incarceration as punishment
  • A recent study examined how children and adults view the effects of punishment
  • Children were found to view punishment as a way of making individuals 'nicer'

The USA has the highest percentage of imprisoned citizens in the world, and while South Africa’s rate is not as high, our reported 154 437 inmates (according to World Prison Brief data) is still a cause for concern. 

Limited research is available on to what extent people view incarceration as a just and effective form of punishment, and whether opinions about punishment change with age.

A recent investigation conducted by researchers of the University of Columbia probed whether children and adults “view punishment as redemptive” or not.  

Existing research on this topic considers two opposing scenarios. One is that the likelihood of children giving positive feedback after punishment is higher because they are more optimistic than adults.

The second is that children are more likely than adults to report character traits as unchangeable – meaning they are less likely to view punishment as being effective in changing moral character.

'Nicer' after punishment

In study 1, the researchers gave descriptions of two scenarios to 94 adults (aged 18–52) and children (aged 6–8) depicting “nice” or “mean” people who went to prison for breaking the law or going on a business trip (as a control).

Both age groups were then asked to rate the moral character of individuals in both scenarios, with findings indicating that children thought that “mean” individuals became “nicer” after a severe form of punishment such as imprisonment. 

The second study included 77 children (only) who were shown pairs of people who committed transgressions on a laptop and then asked a series of questions.

One person of the pair had been subjected to severe punishment (going to jail), while the other received a milder form of punishment (“time out”).

It was found that regardless of the severity of the punishment type, children still viewed “mean” individuals as becoming “nicer” after being punished.

Pessimism increases with age

"Children in our study reported that punishment – regardless of how severe – caused positive moral change among 'mean' individuals," said corresponding author, James P. Dunlea, 

"Unlike children, adults expected that 'nice' individuals' positive qualities worsened following punishment."

The researchers noted that they did not consider why the children and adults had these particular views, but that future research could provide more insight.

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