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The just-desert method to sentencing objectives to “make the punishment fit the criminal activity.” Just deserts is an older idea revived regularly when authorities are desperate for a basic solution to the criminal offense issue. It swept the United States with some success in the 1970s due to the fact that a few articulate teachers and others, when disillusioned with the rehabilitation focus of the preceding years, for a short time ignored the realities of criminal justice system.
They were charmed by the simplicity of prescribing the same charge for everyone convicted of the same offense, and their rhetoric indicated that this would in some way take full advantage of both fairness and criminal offense prevention.
The simply deserts perspective highlights penalty in proportion to the amount of harm done and the ranked guilt of the criminal star. The simply desert model of sentencing is based on an approach of retribution. Based on the Concept of Commensurate Deserts, the simply desert model holds that punishment needs to be proportional to the severity of a culprit’s criminal conduct.
This concept is specified by the harm done and the level of culpability attributed to the offender. These concepts, in particular important aspects, remember the arguments of the classical criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) for due procedure in the criminal justice system and are based on a comparable understanding of the social agreement, which is supposed to apply similarly and relatively to everyone. Retributive penalty is thus concerned as guaranteeing that offenders do not benefit from their misbehavior.
Yet as critics have argued, the basic defect in this line of thinking is that it is relevant only if social relations are simply and equal, otherwise there is no stability to bring back. In reality, offenders tend to be currently socially disadvantaged, so that penalty really increases inequality rather lowering it (Cavadino and Dignan 42). Often just desert can be negative in the sense of undesirable, in addition to something concerned as an excellent. The truth that the Nazi war bad guys did what they did methods they deserve penalty: We have an excellent factor to send them to jail, on the basis of just desert.
Other considerations, for example, the fact that nobody will be deterred or that the criminal is old and harmless, may weigh against punishment, and we may even decide not to pursue the case for that reason. But, again, that does not mean that deserving to be punished is irrelevant, just that we’ve decided for other reasons to ignore desert in this case. But again: A principle’s being outweighed is not the same as its having no importance. Expressing both equality and entitlements, our social moral code pulls in different directions. How, then, are we to determine when one principle is more important?
Unless we are moral relativists, the mere fact that equality and entitlements are both part of our moral code does not in itself justify a person’s reliance on them, any more than the fact that our moral code once condemned racial mixing while condoning sexual discrimination and slavery should convince us that those principles are justified. Because we know that the rules that define acceptable behavior are continually changing, and sometimes changing for the better, we must allow for the replacement of inferior principles with more reasonable guidelines.
There is perhaps a stronger moral argument for the use of the just desert rooted in death penalty (Reiman, 1988). By deliberately causing the death of another, the murderer incurs a moral debt: the loss of his or her own life is earned as a just desert. By taking another person’s life, the offender has treated their victim as having lesser worth than they afford to themself, as presumably they would not willingly accept the same act to be inflicted against themself. Capital punishment for those who commit murder restores an equilibrium.
The wrongdoer experiences suffering to the same extent that they inflicted upon another. The ‘golden rule’ of ‘doing unto others what one would want others to do unto one’ is restored, as the punishment impresses upon the offender that their worth is equal to that of their victim. It also has a symbolic value by reaffirming publicly the moral commitment to the ‘golden rule’ as a societal value. On these grounds, Rawlings (1999) defends just desert in principle. He opposes it in practice, however, as in the United States, imposition of the death penalty is discriminatory.
To take just one example: the odds of a black person being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim are far higher than the corresponding odds when a white person murders a black victim. Restorative justice is not without its critics, who point out that there are few safeguards to protect the most vulnerable groups from the pious moralizing of reintegrative shaming. This absence of accountability compounds the lack of protection for the offender in terms of appeals to legal process and due rights.
Fundamental issues remain over whether just desert challenges social control or casts the net of social control deeper into the community.
Cavadino, M. and Dignan, J. (2002). The Penal System: An Introduction, 3rd edn, London: Sage. Rawlings, P. (1999). Crime and Power: A History of Criminal Justice, 1688-1998, Harlow: Longman. Reiman, J. (1988). ‘The Justice of the Death Penalty in an Unjust World’, in K. Haas and J. A. Inciardi (eds) Challenging Capital Punishment: Legal and Social Science Approaches, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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