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English Composition I
April 11, 2017
Prisoners: Extended Stay
All punishment has some aim which serves to justify the suffering that is inflicted on the offender. The main aims are retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence.
With retribution , punishment is a matter of what is deserved in return for a wrongful act. The punishment is proportionate punishment to the crime, and imposed on the offender for its own sake rather than to bring about a larger social benefit. The retributive theory of punishment is most often associated with the notion of "eye for and eye" justice, where the imposed punishment is equal to the harm done. The Latin expression for this is lex talionis , which literally means "law of retaliation". Sometimes the "eye for an eye" concept of punishment is taken literally, such as the following from the ancient Babylonian Law of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BCE): "If a man puts out the eye of another man, then his eye shall be put out. If he breaks another man's bone, then his bone shall be broken." The concept is probably most known from its appearance in the Hebrew Bible, that "Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury" (Leviticus. 24:19-21). By today's standards, though, strict adherence to "eye for and eye" justice in all cases can be cruel and even irrational: we do not punish rapists by raping them, or punish arsonists by burning down their houses. Rather, we seek redress through more humane types of suffering that we can impose on offenders.
With incapacitation , punishment keeps offenders from repeating similar crimes, typically by physically restraining them. When we catch violent criminals, one of our first thoughts is to get them off the street before they harm others. With rehabilitation , punishment aims to change the offender's predisposition towards criminal behavior, and thus keeps him from becoming a threat to others when released into the community. Sometimes rehabilitation is facilitated through psychological counseling or other types of behavior-modification therapy. However, the assumption here is that any type of punishment, if it is memorable enough, will in and of itself discourage criminals from repeating crimes. We expect convicts to have learned their lesson and mended their anti-social ways.
With deterrence , punishment is a means of discouraging others from committing similar offenses. If I see that an armed robber was punished with prison time, I will be less likely to commit armed robbery myself. The aim here is to use the criminal as an example from which others can learn.
It is difficult to talk about the aims of punishment without mentioning the motive of revenge , which involves doing something from anger or resentment as a retaliatory measure. In our ordinary lives, revenge often plays a role in our motivations to have someone punished. Suppose, for example, that a mugger stabs you and leaves you with a life-threatening wound, or that you are brutally raped, or that a drunk driver crashes into your car killing one of your family members. In each of these cases you would likely want the perpetrator to not only be caught, but to suffer for his crime and get what he deserves. By harshly punishing the perpetrator, you can vent your rage and get some sense of satisfaction and closure from your ordeal. What distinguishes revenge from retributive aims of punishment is impartiality. Revenge stems from an individual's personal desire for retaliation, whereas retribution considers more abstractly what justice calls for in a specific situation. Similarly, revenge involves negative emotional states of anger or resentment, which should not be part of retributive reasoning.
Let's grant that revenge is a normal part of our drive to punish offenders; the critical question, then, is whether revenge is a valid aim of punishment. On the one hand, part of our justice system aims to give satisfaction to the victims of crime, and it is routine for victims and their family members to testify at trials to help sway judges and jurors regarding the
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