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The Purpose of Criminal Punishment

People who break the law are punished. Criminal penalties range from a small fine or community service to the death penalty. Why are criminals punished? To justify imposing punishment on one of its members, a society must have a purpose.

Most people accept that there are consequences for criminal conduct. The consequences are generally unpleasant and extract from the lawbreaker either his liberty or his property. Once someone is found guilty of a crime, either a felony or a misdemeanor, punishment is imposed.

There is not a single reason to impose a penalty. The reasons for punishing lawbreakers are varied, and the reasons vary with the crime. Each punishment has a purpose:

  • Retribution or Revenge
  • Deterrence/Public Education
  • Incapacitation
  • Rehabilitation

Retribution or Revenge

A crime is considered an act that not only injures the specific victim, but also harms society. A person’s harmful acts may outrage the society as a whole. This gives rise to a desire for revenge, and punishing the criminal tends to satisfy that need.

Additionally, having a person punished by society provides some measure of revenge for the specific victim of the act. If society provides an adequate punishment, the need for an individual to seek revenge personally is diminished and providing incentive to seek retribution through law enforcement.

In some instances, laws require restitution to the victim.  Criminal law is generally reserved for the vindication of society, and often a victim will need to file a separate civil lawsuit to recover damages.

Deterrence/Public Education

Imposing a penalty for a criminal act is also intended to deter that person from repeating the act. If the penalty is significant enough, the lawbreaker will think twice before doing it again. Also, when the penalties are well known and there is public dissemination of penalties for a particular crime, it is expected that others who might contemplate the crime would be deterred from engaging in the prohibited activity.  In the course of human history the deterrence aspect of criminal punishment has had gruesome chapters, including public executions and leaving corpses of the crucified to hang upon the cross.

When there is a trial, sentencing and punishment imposed, there is often attendant publicity. This publicity is part of the deterrent factor in imposing a criminal penalty. Deterrence is frequently an argument used to support the death penalty.

Incapacitation

Jail or prison terms generally lengthen with the seriousness of the crime. The longer sentences serve the ends of revenge and deterrence, and serve another purpose. The longer a person is in custody, the less opportunity that person has to commit new crimes. This is particularly true of repeat offenders. This is one reason for laws known as “three strikes” imposing long prison terms or even life sentences on individuals with multiple convictions.

When an offender has not been deterred by prior penalties, protection of potential victims from that offender becomes an important consideration. Long jail or prison terms for individuals with multiple DUI’s are becoming common as a protection for society. At some point it is in society’s interest to protect itself by a certainty that a dangerous person is unable to harm others and incapacitation through custody serves that interest.

Rehabilitation

There is also a value that every human life has meaning and worth. A belief exists that a spark of good is in everyone, even those who break society’s laws. With that thought in mind, places that were previously known as jail or prison have become Departments of Correction.

Some rehabilitation may come from within a person who is incarcerated. Criminals who are imprisoned may evaluate their actions and reshape their behavior. When their liberty is restored they may restrict their actions to the boundaries of the law. Often programs are offered to offenders to assist in dealing with certain problems. Participation in programs such as drug and alcohol counseling or domestic violence education serves potentially to rehabilitate an individual.

Involvement in such programs is often a condition of either continued freedom or reduction of jail time.

The Morality of Criminal Punishment

Criminal punishment’s morality rests upon the concepts of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation.  These ideas are employed to validate society’s imposition of punishment on offenders.

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