Is Retribution Really a Proper Aim of Society?

Retribution, Deterrence, Incapacitation, Rehabilitation. According to the Street Law class I took in my Senior Year in high school, these are the four traditional aims of justice in American and presumably other cultures. (Don’t ask me what “Street Law” means. We were all required to take it, and near as I can tell, it is “street” insofar as it was all-encompassing, and so prepared us for life in general:confused:.) Let’s look at these in reverse order. Rehabilitation. This is the most recent addition to the list. And if you are a liberal like me, it is the most important. But surely even if you are not a liberal, you would have to agree it is the one with the best pay back for society (when successful of course). Incapacitation. Again, I think few would argue with this one. It is often all that is left too, when rehabilitation fails, I’m sure you’d agree. Deterence. I’m sure most people would agree with me that if not overdone this one is important too. It is also, in my opinion, where we get the idea of accountability in our system of justice. You do the crime, you have to do the time, as they say.

Now the only thing that leaves is Retribution. And to that I ask Why? Why is retribution the proper aim of society? Someone punches you in the nose, so instead of getting even by punching them back, you send them to jail. Do we really need government to do that–help us settle our personal scores? Aren’t the other 3 things enough by themselves to ensure safety and order in our society?

A couple of notes. I am talking about our system of justice. I am not talking about individual personal views or even religious views, though those do sound like good GD subjects by themselvs. And I am not talking about the practical implications of things like accountability, etc. for crime (remember I already covered that above). This is a purely moral question. And please feel free to give me your views. I am very interested to hear how others feel about this subject matter. :slight_smile:

I don’t see the necessity for retribution. What’s the point in being punitive? It just breeds more hostility.


That’d be nice. Do you know of any effective rehabilitation program for hardened criminals?


Sure, they’re less likely to harm those outside of prison walls. It make sense.


Yes. Not that I really believe prison or even the death penalty really act as a deterrence. Maybe a little.


One of our governments job is to settle personal scores in civil and criminal proceedings.


I’d have to argue that Incapacitation is a form of Retribution. Being thrown in jail, prison, or fined is a form of punishment. While they are being punished they have the opportunity to be rehabilitated, they’re incapacitated, and they serve as a deterrent. In theory anyway.

It is proper to punish people for the damage they do to others and should be part of any justice system.


There is no moral value to retribution. Especially if “could have done otherwise” is nonsense.

“Do you know of any effective rehabilitation program for hardened criminals?”

Yes. Sort of:

Ok, I don’t know whether meta-analysis settled the debate, but I’ve also read other partial retractions by prior proponents of “Nothing Works”. Don’t know for sure whether it applies to “Hardened criminals”, whatever they are.

The law texts that I have read have tended to frown on retribution. I frown on it as well, but recognize that this value judgment is by no means universal.

---- I’d have to argue that Incapacitation is a form of Retribution. Being thrown in jail, prison, or fined is a form of punishment.

I’ll have to argue not. “Warehousing” is a useful synonym for incapacitation. You lock somebody up in prison, so that they don’t harm society. Like deterrence and rehabilitation it is forward looking.

“Retribution”, OTOH, is backwards looking. The criminal damages society so, in response, society damages the criminal.

We’re talking about justifications for punishment here. Whether punishment in the end actually promotes all 4 of these ends is not strictly relevant.

Retribution is essential to the human belief in an ordered universe. In a way, just like religious belief - isn’t retribution one of the prime attributes we demand from our dieties?

How come “restitution” isn’t on the list?

Assuming your question isn’t rhetorical, I’m not exactly sure. It has been a while since I had the class. Maybe the teacher was just talking about the traditional aims of justice. On the other hand, IANAL, but isn’t restitution a civil (i.e., noncriminal) matter?

If the state does not extract some measure of retribution, the victims (and their friends and family), will. Simple fact of life.

You’ve taken the OP’s question, drastically narrowed its scope (from all criminals to “hardened criminals”), and attacked it all.

Criminals are not born “hardened.” They get that way. One of the things that helps them along is an overly punitive system that destroys their economic status, lets them fend for themselves in a prison filled with lots of other similiarly disaffected and bitter persons, and then turns them loose with nothing and dim prospects for a future: ( ) Fill in the circle if you have a felony conviction; don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

I know plenty of people who were quite delinquent has adolescents and young adults, but turned out fine. Don’t understimate how much people can change, and don’t lump all criminals in with the “I got HATE tattooed on my knuckles and I’m doing 25-to life for molesting my seventh 3-year old boy.”

I’m not a proponent of “nothing works.” The rate of recidivism is high but it isn’t 100% so whatever we’re doing must work on some people. I realize that most of these people will exit prison at some point so I would certainly like to see them rehabilitated.

As to legal text that frowned on retribution I gotta wonder which text are you reading? Throughout most of history criminal law has focused on punishment from the Code of Hammurabi on up. Even today our society says that certain crimes will receive certain punishments. If there is no punishment then there is no deterrence.



I happen to think rehabilitation of first time or minor offenders is far easier then a habitual offender.


Over punative? Most people don’t do hard time for their first offenses.

How delinquent are we talking here? Vandalism, assault, rape, theft, murder?


I don’t think anyone was arguing against punishment (straw man?), it was the idea that one of the objectives was to seek retribution. Society punishing someone as a deterrance/incapacitation/rehabilitation is fine but punishing someone as retribution shouldn’t be what society is baout.

If I understood it correctly.

I just don’t see why retribution shouldn’t be a factor when determining a criminal sentence. The whole idea of punishment has been a part of western legal tradition since the Code of Hammurabi. That’s why we have sentence guidelines based on the crime in question. If punishment wasn’t suppose to be a factor then everyone would simply be sentenced until they’re rehabilitated.



What might be more accurate is “Nothing Works for Everyone” No program can be one-size-fits-all and be truly successful. Ideally, each person entering the prison system should have tailor-made programs which would help them in areas where they need it. To a certain extent, this exists. For example, a violent inmate may be referred to an anger management program, but the program itself may not address his particular problems.

In an ideal situation, there would be enough trained counselors in each prison available to spend time on an in-depth analysis of each inmate’s problem areas, and could work with them intensively. Unfortunately, such a program is impossible. Neither the staff or the funding is available. (Politicians shout about being “tough on crime” and then cut prisons’ budgets.)


As the wife of a corrections employee, I attribute lack of recidivism in some individuals less to rehabilitation than to the fact that a lot of people only have “one crime in them.”

For example, a man may have shot his best friend because he found out that the friend was having an affair with his wife. This is a one-time sort of crime. This man is not likely to go out and shoot another person. Many murderers fit under this category. In an extreme circumstance, not likely to be repeated, they snapped and killed someone. Most likely, they’ll never kill again.

A lot of crimes are those of opprotunity. A fellow saw an unattended register, for example, and on impulse, decided to steal the money. Or, a kid is talked into stealing a car for a joyride by his friends. After being caught, they kick themselves for being so stupid.

Rehabilitation in the penal system is “iffy” at best. The employees in charge of these programs have enormous case loads, and giving each individual inmate the time and attention that they would need for true rehabilitation is next to impossible.

Since the programs are largely voluntary, the apparent success of some of them might be attributed to the fact that those who join the program are individuals who might not re-offend anyway.

More importantly, some inmates don’t want to be rehabilitated. Either they don’t see their actions as wrong, or they flat-out don’t care if they are or not. An inmate must be willing to change in order for rehabilitation to be successful. If he’s not, no power on earth can force him to it.

Finally, rehabilitiation is only successful if the inmate can live an honest life on the “outside.” A man who returns to society and finds that the only employment he can get is a menial, low-paying, dead-end McJob which won’t feed his family can be highly tempted to return to lucrative crime, despite his best intentions.

I have my doubts that our criminal justice system has much of a deterrent effect. First of all, most people count on not being caught for their crimes. Secondly, during so-called “crimes of passion” most people don’t stop to think about the consequences of their actions.

True–but what about people past their first offense?

Over 30% of prisoners with six or more prior arrests that were released from prison in 1994 had not been re-arrested has of 1997 (cite: the Bureau of Justice Statistics–see table 12). Clearly, a substantial fraction of prisoners–even those with a significant criminal history–are released from prison and do not return. I think a less punitive, more rehabilitation-oriented system (e.g., education, life skills, job skills, well-funded post-release programs aimed at finding jobs and housing in a new area, etc.) makes a lot of sense.

I think you were implying that murderers are harder to rehabilitate then theives: I’ll point out that the recidivism rate for murderers and rapists is significantly lower then that for thieves and “assaulters” (I’m sure there’s a better word for that :)). I’d say no crime is so bad or criminal so hard that punishment should be the primary goal of a sentence.

We’re talking about the reasons for the punishment, not whether there should be punishment. Deterence and incapacitation serve as two such reasons. Punishment need not be attributed to retribution. Yes, the Hammurabi code did focus on revenge (although it wasn’t exactly equal–different social classes got different punishments that also depended on who had been the victim of their crimes), but that doesn’t mean that our legal system is guided by it.

Except that doesn’t happen in every case of a criminal who appeared guilty to everyone (or who the family believed had been responsible for the crime perpetrated on one of their own) being acquitted. In fact, I would think that it happens in very few of the cases. But the key issue is that retribution should not be what’s directing the state–the other three factors should be. The family might see the punishment as revenge, but that that’s what it is.


I am not at all opposed to programs aimed at rehabilitation. I have no objections to programs that would help prisoners learn job skills or getting an education. As I said earlier I realize most of these people are going to get out of prison at some point in the future. I’d rather they felt as though they had other options then crime when they got out. I’m still not sure how effective we can be though.

I never said punishment should be a primary goal I said it should be a factor. As for rehabilitation and recidivism for murderers, so far as I know most people guilty of murder didn’t start with murder as their first major offense. Usually they start with lesser crimes and work their way up.


*…not what it is.