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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 9 2012: Without punishment, there will be people who will commit crimes, knowing that rehabilitation may provide them with free education. There has to be a sense of consequences for criminal behavior to make people think twice.

    Without rehabilitation, criminals will become hardened, as is now often the case. People don't commit crimes because they know how to act properly and don't, they commit crimes because there is a distortion in their sense of ability to do the right thing and prosper. They sense an injustice in which they are the victim firsthand.

    There are psychological issues to this question. The stress of poverty coupled with a sick child and no insurance distorts a person's ability to think rationally. These are mitigating factors. When poverty is coupled with addicting behaviors (drugs, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, etc.), these are compounding factors. There are people who are driven to criminal actions due to stress, and there are people who drive themselves to criminal actions due to lack of self-control. If only it were that simple.

    In his book "The New Primal Scream", author Arthur Janov presents evidence that early childhood or birth trauma can create subconscious drives that can become debilitating. Such people can't control themselves and have no idea why.
    There is a close relationship between insanity and criminal behavior, even when a person knows the difference between right and wrong. They are driven to make the wrong choices for reasons that they don't understand. Getting them the psychological help that they need is expensive, and therefore, rarely happens (except in cases in which a person is labeled insane). This being the case, rehabilitation is only partially effective for most criminals because it doesn't address the root of the problem.

    The justice system is often well aware of these problems, but it is torn between the need to protect the innocent, while doing the best it can within budget constraints.

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