Today, punishment and criminal behavior is a problem facing the American nation, but one for which a limited number of solutions exist. Critics recognize that the offender is an “enemy” who deserves condemnation and retaliation. The response lies in the ability of the criminal justice system to catch, convict, and punish violent criminals. To punish offenders and prevent further crimes, four main types of punishment exist retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection.
Retribution has been debated for many years. Its proponents argue that it would prevent crime by incapacitating those likely to re-offend. Its opponents claim that it is fundamentally unfair because it allows a judge to decide a person’s future behavior. Since no one can accurately predict behavior, particularly criminality, the chances of mistakes are high. It is also considered to be a dangerous step toward punishment without trial (Fagin, 2006).
Since most of the nation’s jails are already overcrowded and in disrepair, it is pragmatically an unworkable solution. Another component of the current punitive trend is tougher sentencing laws, particularly for serious crime and repeat offenders. Within the past few years, at least three dozen states have enacted stricter sentences. Most of the remaining states introduced but have not yet passed similar legislation (Fagin, 2006).
Rehabilitation is seen as the form of sentencing most often used was the indeterminate sentence. Legislatures set wide ranges for sentencing, and judges meted out minimums and maximums that also had a wide range. This allowed correctional personnel the discretion of releasing offenders when they were reformed. No one, other than correctional authorities, particularly cared for this system. Inmates did not like it because their release depended on the whims of the parole board and because offenders never knew exactly when they would be released. Judges and the public did not like it because the term served never resembled the actual sentence given and was almost always shorter (Fagin, 2006).
Recent legislation in many American states replaced the indeterminate sentence with more determinate forms of sentencing. Deterrence has been taken away from correctional personnel and assumed by legislators and judges (Inciardi, 2009).
New laws specifying set lengths of sentences for particular offenses allow modifications of the time served based on the specific circumstances associated with a given incident. Judges then sentence according to the prescribed scheme and set a specific time for a person to remain incarcerated, which correctional officials can do little to modify. This change lengthened sentences, particularly for serious and repeat offenders. In many states, third-time convicted felons automatically receive a life sentence, and second-time felons receive automatic prison sentences with no chance for probation (Schmalleger, 2006).
Social protection often accompanies new sentencing legislation. Many states made it more difficult to be placed on probation for certain offenses and impossible for certain serious ones. Parole, which is the conditional early release from prison under supervision in the community, has also been restricted in many states. In theory, a return to determinacy and the abandonment of rehabilitation eliminates the need for parole, which was designed to help the offender prepare to reenter the community. Yet parole serves another important function of controlling inmates in prison and is one of the few rewards that can be manipulated.
For this reason, most states have retained it. Still, the administration of parole has been modified so that the parole date is determined by the sentence rather than by the paroling authority. Because it reduces the total amount of time an individual will serve and modifies the original sentence, several states have considered eliminating it. However, heavy lobbying against the legislation by correctional personnel has prevented its elimination (Fagin, 2006).
In general, retribution still remains the most effective method of punishment as it keeps many people from severe and minor crimes. Once regarded as naive and needing guidance and protection, deterrence is now considered by many to be willful, malicious, and dangerous predators of the community (Inciardi, 2009). The reason politicians endorse punitive reforms is obvious: it is what the public wants. People are afraid of crime. They are tired of being the victims of theft and violence, and they want action.
They want government to solve the problem. The accuracy of the public’s image of crime is irrelevant. If the public believes that a problem exists and wants changes, then responsive government must respond. Social programs providing opportunities for the disadvantaged and programs for rehabilitating criminals did not reduce crime, so penal philosophy followed the general swing back toward conservatism. Second, it is a reaffirmation of three goals of criminal sanction: deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution. The fourth recognized goal is reform, from which the system is moving away. Deterrence, simply, is the use of punishment to prevent illegal behavior and may be directed toward two different populations (Markel, 2009).
In sum, offenders should be severely punished to prevent them from repeating their crimes in the future; this is known as specific deterrence, a practice that embodies the principle most American families use in disciplining. When people engage in undesirable behavior, they are punished. This is repeated whenever the behavior occurs until the punishment is associated with the act. To avoid the punishment, the individual learns to refrain from the act. Punishing criminals has the same purpose. Strict punishment serves as a warning sign of what will happen to anyone who commits an illegal act. In this way, the criminal act should have a restraining effect on the entire American society.
Fagin, J. A. (2006). Criminal Justice. Prentice Hall; 3 edition.
Inciardi, J. (2009). Criminal Justice. Prentice Hall; 9 edition.
Markel, D. (2009). Privilege or Punish: Criminal Justice and the Challenge of Family Ties. Oxford University Press, USA.
Schmalleger, F. J. (2006). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century (9th Edition). Prentice Hall; 9 edition.