Home > criminals, justice, law > >Reasons for sentencing criminals

>Reasons for sentencing criminals

> In response to my post defending the death penalty a few months ago jc_freak raises some issues and several objections. Firstly he gives some helpful philosophies surrounding reasons for sentencing.

  1. Retribution. When someone does something wrong, they are responsible for their actions, and must pay it back.
  2. Deterrence. When someone does something wrong, punish them in such a way as to make anyone else who may commit that crime afraid.
  3. Rehabilitation.When someone does something wrong, punish them in such a way to convince them the act was wrong so that they would never do it again.
  4. Incapacitation. When someone does something wrong, prevent them from ever being able to do it again.

One must remember that sentencing is something done in the course of carrying out justice. Thus while each of these positions may have validity, and in fact more than one can be ascribed to, there is primary philosophy which the others need to accommodate.

Sentencing is about retribution (as defined above). Justice demands that wrongs be righted. A thief must return what he stole, and perhaps cover the costs of the victim being without his property. The object is owned by the victim and not the thief, even while it is in the possession of the thief. One can hardly advocate rehabilitation while the thief retains the stolen property.

Deterrence is also a secondary reason in sentencing. Forms of deterrence can be draconian. Hanging men for stealing food and amputating limbs of thieves are effective deterrents, both for the criminal and citizens. But this is hardly just. The talion limits punishments to the level of the crime, thus justice is primary over deterrence.

Incapacitation is related to retribution, it is the last step for a recalcitrant criminal. The criminal’s history is such that his future is predictable. One could say he is being punished for the crimes he is bound to commit.

Thus retribution (and incapacitation) are primary, and deterrence and rehabilitation secondary. That being said, the message of the cross is rehabilitation. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Note Ezekiel’s message to the Jews,

But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18)

A primary reason need not be the most important reason. Jesus offers us rehabilitation; yet he still deals to the issue of retribution via the crucifixion.

I will deal with the objections in my next post.

Categories: criminals, justice, law
  1. 2009 June 24 at 12:31

    I have a hard time with the idea of incapacitation. It is almost like being punished for a “thought crime”, being imprisoned for what one might do. How many “crimes” have I committed in my head, but never with my hands?
    I regret that we have strayed so for from retribution as being primary in the legal system. If I assault you, the main thing is that you get restored. Prison time does nothing for you, the victim.

  2. 2009 June 26 at 23:27

    Yes Greg, there are potential issues with incapacitation, but I think it can be justified in some cases. The reason would be for someone who has already committed such crime and has been punished yet continues to perform such crime.
    So if a man assaults a person without justification and gets imprisoned, yet after his sentence he does the same, and again, and again within months of leaving prison each time; I think an argument could be made to retain him in prison indefinitely.

  3. the Measure You Use
    2009 June 28 at 11:09

    Such a difficult area to change people’s behaviour from the outside. Obviously consequences are key, but we can never guarantee that someone will respond in the desired way, that is their free choice.
    Justice on earth will only ever be an imperfect attempt. Ultimately all will be sqared up at the end. This is something that the secular system cannot take into account.

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