Justice and Due Process

The Purpose of Punishment

American culture assumes that crime deserves punishment. But if punishment is not tailored to serve a purpose, it ends up being pointless suffering for the offender and expensive for taxpayers.

So what are the purposes of punishment?

Deterrence: Rooted in the idea that incentives modify behavior, if a crime is followed by a severe enough punishment, the offender will think before committing that crime. While the concept is intuitively sound and works well for some types of crime — we file taxes every year because we fear an IRS audit — it has limits. If people perceive that the odds of getting caught are low, they are less likely to be deterred. Furthermore, some types of crime — those stemming from momentary opportunity or passion — are not the result of a rational risk-reward calculus and are less susceptible to deterrence. 

Incapacitation: This concept involves physically preventing an offender from committing a crime, primarily through incarceration, though the death penalty and other methods can also incapacitate offenders. Again, intuitively sound — opportunities to commit crime are limited in prison. However, given the expense of incarceration, it’s usually a temporary solution. 

Rehabilitation: Rather than modifying behavior through external negative consequences, rehabilitation aims to change offenders into law-abiding citizens through education, vocation training, and other programming. When successful, rehabilitation achieves long-term change, and offenders no longer require external constraints. However, some behaviors and individuals are more susceptible to rehabilitation than others. Moreover, not all programming is created equally. 

Retribution: While often reduced to “an eye for an eye,” properly understood retribution is more than vented outrage. Imposing a proportionate punishment validates victims and expresses a societal condemnation of behavior that is beyond the pale. It serves a deep-seated, cross-cultural urge to balance the scales of justice. This purpose makes the most sense in the context of crimes that cause irreparable harm like murder, sexual crimes, and crimes against children. 

Thinking about the purpose of a punishment can be a powerful mental tool to discuss whether something should be a crime and, if so, what type of punishment will effectively serve the interests of society. We can better tailor punishment to effectively serve a purpose, rather than mindlessly handing out sentences that are unlikely to accomplish anything of value.