Wednesday, September 30, 2015


I recently read a short essay on punishment in our criminal justice system.  Unfortunately, I can't find it any more, so I can't link to it, but I remember its essence well enough.  First, it noted the five reasons for punishing criminals:

1.  Retribution
2.  Incapacitation
3.  Deterrence
4.  Rehabilitation
5.  Restitution

There are a few other reasons sometimes given, but they tend to be sub-reasons of these five.

Anyway, the argument was that though retribution is often considered primitive and not worthy of a modern society, without it, there's no point to the other reasons.

I disagree.  It's easy to imagine taking action without a hint of retribution.  Imagine a machine that has flying blades that cut off people's heads.  We'd turn that machine off, and perhaps lock it in a room, to make everyone safe.  No retribution involved, just getting it out of everyone's way.  Same with a wild animal that eats people. We can treat humans the same way, if we choose.  We're not getting even with you, we just recognize you're too dangerous to live among people.

I'm reminded of a thought experiment that tries to separate retribution and deterrence.  We gather all our worst criminal in a stadium and blow them up in front of all society.  But it's actually a magic trick where they're transported to a paradisiacal island that no one knows about (except a few people in charge), and that they can't escape from, where they will live out their natural lives.

Does this bother you?  Apparently it's supposed to, but I never had too much trouble with it.  Seems to take care of the problem quite well.  The dangerous criminals are gone from society, and we get maximum deterrence from their disappearance, even though there's no retribution involved.

I've always seen retribution as collapsing into deterrence.  Retribution is a primitive but very understandable instinct.  When someone does you wrong, you've got to take action (just as when someone does you a favor, you owe them something). If you don't have this tit for tat, bad people will go around figuring they can do anything they want.  Thus this instinct develops as a form of deterrence.

But, perhaps, once we recognize where the need for retribution comes from, we can move beyond it.  The fear, though, is if we don't include a large dollop of retribution in our punishment, then no one will understand why it's wrong to do these things.  A good point, but one which breaks down into another deterrence argument.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

The scenario doesn't bother at me either. The only danger I see is the nformation leaking out, causing an upsurge in crime for the rest of us. If I knew that welfare or subsidies (within reason) stopped crime cold, I would suppoprt more of them. But take countries that offer free methadone clinics, free housing, free education, etc. They still have drug addicts and homeless and criminals.

I'm thinking of the Twilight Zone episode where a pretty bad criminal is shot and wakes up in what seems to be heaven. He can gamble, rob banks, mistreat women, etc. with no consequences. The twist of course is he is in hell, which he comes to realize when all his favorite activities lose their attraction for him.

The fact is, almost all people do some bad things (on a massive sliding scale from jaywalking to murder). Some do these things due to weakness or dire circumstances, others make calculated decisions (or reckless non-decisions) to do these bad things. The former group can be helped, rehabilitated or deterred. The latter can only be deterred (though the threat of retribution) or incapacitation. So I agree, retribution (which is not he same as revenge) is essential to minimizing the number of people who choose to do evil. This is also why I support a very limited Death Penalty. I am sympathetic to the argument that the State should not have that much power (to take the lives of citizens), because the STate is likely to misuse the power and make mistakes. But there has to be an ultimate retribution for someone who has nothing left to lose, and/or is too dangerous to keep in society. I would tighten the evidence standards, however, to avoid ant convictions based solely on circumstantial evidence.

8:34 AM, September 30, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose you could see the death penalty as the ultimate in incapacitation.

8:53 AM, September 30, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DG you seem to think good and bad are always self-evident. I would assert that they are not

5:34 PM, September 30, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's surprising how quickly Denver Guy has given up on rehabilitating people who, in his eyes, intentionally do bad things.

6:37 PM, September 30, 2015  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Anon #1: Indeed.

Anon #2: Is there a real problem with good acts being mistaken for bad acts? I'm all for juries considering mitigating circumstances. In fact, I don't like the minimum sentence guidelines that became all the rage 10 or 20 years ago. I have to admit, they probably played a role in the siginificant decrease in crime rates over the last few decades, but I rather just juries and judges to become familiar with the facts and make reasoned judgements than allow bureaucrats to blindly apply "one size fits all" statutes.

Anon #3: I'm all for rehabilitating jaywalkers, even intentional ones (as most are). But as I said, it is a huge sliding scale, and the more heinous the crime, and the more danger someone poses to society, the less opportunity for rehabilitation in my opinion.

8:23 AM, October 01, 2015  

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