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David Steele

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Should criminal sentencing be oriented towards punishment or rehabilitation?

There are basically two lines of thought on what the goal of criminal sentencing (this means after guilt has been proven) should be: justice for the victim, which is usually used to mean punishment for the perpetrator, and rehabilitation for the perpetrator, which means working to make him a functioning member of society. Examples of policies favoring justice for the victim would include the death penalty, as it precludes the possibility of rehabilitation, and life sentences without the possibility of parole, for the same reason. Examples of policies favoring rehabilitation for the perpetrator include in-prison education for inmates, because the aim is to prepare them to find a job on the outside, reducing their dependence on crime and hopefully make them functioning members of society, and parole systems, because they allow for the possibility that if a convict can reform his ways, and has the possibility of functioning well on the outside, he should be released. There are of course, various compromises within those philosophies. One such mixture of philosophies can be seen in the minimum time requirements for parole; which state that inmates granted the possibility of parole must first serve a set number of years out of their sentence before they can be considered for parole. The idea of these minimum time requirements are to provide a deterrent while still allowing for rehabilitation. However critics say that there can be no compromise between these ideas, because if there is any immutable punishment, that contradicts the idea that if the convict is rehabilitated he is released, favoring a deterrent, which has nothing to do with the individual's possibility. So: do you think that these two concepts can exist symbiotically? If so, how? If not, which do you think we should abide by? As a side-note, all my examples are from U.S. law. I would be very interested to hear examples of these concepts from wherever you live.

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    Oct 7 2012: I suggest both.

    Also locking people up may be something else, not just punishment. It may protect society from those who are a threat.

    Whether we have free will or not, some fear of punishment is a partial deterrent either consciously or unconsciously.

    Also, whether we have free will or not, if you put alternative ideas or options in other peoples heads, either conscious or unconscious, if you can change their habits, you may help prevent future crimes.

    Assuming you don't lock every convicted criminal for life for every crime, they will get out one day. Why not give rehabilitation a try. Why not try it on a volunteer or compulsory basis and check the data.

    In fact, if there is data to show attempts at rehabilitation work, and the benefits outweigh the costs why not give it a go?
    • Oct 7 2012: Precisely!
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      Oct 7 2012: "In fact, if there is data to show attempts at rehabilitation work, and the benefits outweigh the costs why not give it a go?"

      I would go as far as saying that if the data shows that rehabilitation works better than punishment, it should be done regardless of cost.
      • Oct 7 2012: A man comes home from work, finds his wife in bed with another man and shoots her. The man is convicted for manslaughter. Chances of him ever doing it again are tiny (because he wasn't a deranged serial killer and the situation of him catching his wife cheating is unlikely to repeat in his lifetime), even without any efforts at rehabilitation. Are you saying he should not receive any punishment at all?

        @Mats below

        At the time of the trial it really doesn't matter how the perpetrator became who he is. My point was that a person committing a crime only once does not make that crime and the damage done by it any less serious. When some vandal damages your car for $5000 and then is rehabilitated and never vandalizes anything again, you're still left with a $5000 bill if the vandalism is not forced to pay you. There is more to crime than recidivity statistics: damage is done and has to be compensated for, preferably by the perpetrators, this is why punishment is so much more than primitive revenge.

        @David Steele

        Seeing prison as compensation may seem hard but the vast majority of punishments are fines or community service, clearly those are about repairing damage. In cases where the perpetrator cannot afford a fine a prison sentence is there to assure that not only wealthier perpetrators are punished. Also, while prison may not deter our one-time passion killer, jailing him may deter others, at the very least it will prevent a wave of killers trying to stay out of jail by claiming they only killed out of passion. At some level the parents of the victim may find compensation in the fact that the killer of their child is forced to have a hard time and think about the consequences of his actions. Lastly, an efficient prison system (which not every country has), and/or the prisoner's reduced income potential after release will redistribute wealth away from the perpetrator to the rest of society.
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          Oct 7 2012: Human behavior is subject to the same laws as any other natural phenomenon. Our customs, behaviors, and values are byproducts of our culture. No one is born with greed, prejudice, bigotry, patriotism and hatred; these are all learned behavior patterns. If the environment is unaltered, similar behavior will reoccur.

          If you were raised by the headhunters of the Amazon as a baby, if you saw nothing else, you'd be a headhunter. If you were raised in Nazi Germany where all you see is 'Heil Hitler', you'd be a Nazi. So I think all people are perfectly well adjusted where they're coming from. There's no such thing as good or bad people. You're taught to hate certain people, but where they're coming from, it's normal. If you're brought up in the South, uneducated region, you might become a member of the Ku Klux Klan, you speak with a Southern accent. Where do you get that from? The environment. Where do you get, 'I'm gonna get me a nigger and kick his ass'. You get that from the environment. It's not that people are good or bad. They're raised in an aberrated or twisted environment.

          So, the more justice you seek, the more hurt you become because there's no such thing as justice. There is whatever there is out there. That's it... The point is we have to redesign the environment that produces aberrant behaviour. That's the problem. Not putting a person in jail. That's why judges, lawyers, 'freedom of choice': such concepts are dangerous because it gives you mis-information that the person is 'bad', or that person is a 'serial killer'. Serial killers are made, just like soldiers become serial killers with a machine gun. They become killing machines, but nobody looks at them as murderers or assassins because that's 'natural'". So we blame people. We say, 'Well this guy was a Nazi. He tortured Jews.' No, he was brought up to torture Jews.
        • Oct 8 2012: Thanks John. I would respond to your comment by asking you this: what is the merit of punishment? It seems like a stupid question, and maybe it is, but think about it. The potential punishment obviously had no affect as a deterrent in your scenario. This is a man who, as you have stated, will not re-offend. So while I'm not saying I necessarily think there should be no punishment, I'm just posing the question. I mean, you mention that the punishment should serve as compensation, but who's really being compensated by the perpetrator spending time in prison. If you were to tell the family of the victim that the man who killed there relative no longer existed and in his place was a productive member of society, don't you think that would give them even more peace of mind than being told the killer is in jail? Also, I think phrasing the question as "are you saying he should not receive any punishment at all" is a bit misleading, as that implies the other side is arguing that there should be no response to the crime, when in fact the argument is for rehabilitation oriented sentencing. Finally, and this is only a technical point unrelated to the validity of your argument, vandals don't actually have to pay you for the damage they've caused just because they've been convicted of the crime. In fact, you would either have to file a claim with your local victim compensation office or sue the vandal civilly in court. In either case, your not likely to recover any money, because the victims compensation office is going to be much to busy with more serious crimes to help you, and if you were to beat the perpetrator in civil court-which if he had already been convicted in criminal is almost a foregone conclusion-he would then likely file for bankruptcy, because statistically he would likely be dirt poor and then, depending on the terms of the bankruptcy, you'd likely just have to absorb the debt.
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          Oct 10 2012: Mk, I suggest greed and competitiveness are fairly natural.

          We have a mix of nature and nurture.

          E.g. We have sex drives. For some this leads to rape or pedophilia.

          Part of the difficulty in this discussion is you almost need to look case by case.

          Agree the environment is important. But there is a genetic component too. Some people are psychopaths. Some people in the same situation make different choices.

          But agree part of it it luck.
    • Oct 8 2012: Obey, theres no evidence that punishment works as a deterrent. Criminal behavior almost always finds its roots in impulse control problems. This can be due to various reasons, but I can tell you thinking your behavior through before you do it is a rarity in the criminal population, this, of course, is why people get caught for crimes so easily. This is also why so many criminals in the united states are locked up for drug crimes or crimes related to drug and alcohol abuse. I can tell you that most addicts really don't want to commit crimes they just have to in order to get high. The power of that pleasure will always usurp punishment deterrents. What we really need is treatment for those who are locked up. In my opinion prisons should be solely focused on warehousing irredeemable convicts and rehabilitating the others with cognitive behavioral therapy focusing on impulse control. Theres a very interesting study that was done called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, it pertains directly to this issue. Its an interesting quick read. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment
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        Oct 8 2012: your experiment is interest . that is good
      • Oct 8 2012: Punishment is also a way of paying for the damage you caused. Not repeating previous crimes doesn't make the damage you already did magically go away.
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        Oct 10 2012: Hi Brian.

        I agree with the power of recency and impulse issues.

        But suggest fear of punishment works for some people with some crimes. I don't cheat on my tax because I don't want to get caught. I even resisted hitting someone because I don't want an assault charge amongst other things.

        This might be the minority.

        But I suggest there would be more crime if there were no punishments.

        I think it should be part of the mix, but probably not the central one.

        There are also studies that indicate it is important for there be a cost for people overstepping the mark otherwise they will take unfair advantage.

        But agree there is a range of people and situations.
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      Oct 11 2012: But the other thing is that if you lock away someone for like 40 years and then you release him because he's been rehab'd, the drastic shock in change of environments is too great. I'm totally pulling this from Shawshank Redemption, but the movie brings up a really tragic point.

      I mean, 40 years from now is such a different world than today. A lot of people hate change, and that much change is almost inhuman to deal with. It can induce a lot of loneliness too because you're living in a world where you may feel like you just don't belong anymore.

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