Incapacitation in Criminal Justice: Definition, Theory & Effect

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  • 0:01 Definition of Incapacitation
  • 1:04 Application of Incapacitation
  • 2:29 Historical Use of…
  • 3:30 Effects of Incapacitation
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will discuss the function of incapacitation in our criminal justice system, how it is defined theoretically, how it has emerged as a practice historically, variations in how it is applied, and its effects on our societies.

Definition of Incapacitation

'Lock him up and throw away the key!' may be a line that you recall from fairy tales and movies in your childhood. That line refers to the use of incapacitation as a form of punishment.

Incapacitation refers to the restriction of an individual's freedoms and liberties that they would normally have in society. Within the criminal justice system, incapacitation is the response used when a person has committed a crime. By incapacitating the convicted offender, we prevent the individual from committing future crimes because he is removed from society and locked up or restrained somehow.

It can be noted that incapacitation takes a forward-looking perspective in that it cannot rectify crimes that have already been committed and only attempts to prevent crimes from being committed in the future. Incapacitation is also described as being one of the four goals of incarceration, or imprisonment. Incapacitation comes first, and then comes deterrence, rehabilitation, and finally retribution.

The Application of Incapacitation

Most commonly, the term incapacitation is reserved for individuals who are sent to prison or given the death penalty. However, it also includes things like being supervised by departments within the community, such as probation and parole. Day reporting centers and ankle bracelets with GPS tracking devices may also be incorporated to incapacitate an individual.

In some societies, incapacitation does not directly equate to imprisonment. It may involve corporal punishment or dismemberment, such as in the case of some Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Specifically, in Saudi Arabia and other countries governed by Sharia or Islamic law, theft is considered a grave criminal offense and is punished with the public removal of an offender's dominant hand at the wrist, (most often the right hand since most people are right handed). In some countries, acts of adultery by a woman may be punished by stoning the person to death. In cases of accused treason, the offender may be punished by public beheading.

Western societies, such as the United States and much of Europe (as well as a number of east Asian nations), do not employ these barbaric tactics. However, chemical castration, which includes court ordered injections of a hormone that prevents the male offender from being able to perform sexually (and may include minor surgery as well) has been used to incapacitate some sex offenders in both the United States and Europe.

Historical Use of Incapacitation

The notion of removing an offender from society in order to prevent him from doing future harm is not new. In the past, people have been held in dungeons, abandoned castles, and even shipped out of their home countries to penal colonies, such as North America, modern day French Guiana, or Australia. Today, something like a criminal being removed from a country is not common practice, except in extreme cases, like terrorism and treason.

However, imprisonment is used far more commonly, especially in the United States, than it was several decades ago. As a result, selective incapacitation has been employed in an attempt to lock up fewer offenders, namely those who have committed more crimes in general and more violent crimes, for longer periods of time. This alleviates prison overcrowding and excess spending on incarceration. Selective incarceration is in contrast to collective incarceration that locks up more people at a time, such as in the case of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes.

Effects of Incapacitation

The effects of incapacitating offenders may be examined from the individual level and the community/society level.

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