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Punishment in America Research Paper Essay


 Punishment in America has mainly four goals: Retribution (deserved punishment), Deterrence, Societal protection and Rehabilitation. Ultimately all this punishment are aimed at maintaining societal order, but the justification for the sentence are closely tied to the American values of justice and fairness. However the justice sought by crime victims often conflicts with the fairness to the offenders. It’s therefore important to note that while punishment in America is meant to correct the offender the effectiveness of method used on the criminal determine the outcome to correct the anomaly. Restorative justice has proved to be a new method of restoring justice among the offenders.

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            Punishment reflects the dominant values of particular moments in history. By the end of 1960s for example, the number of Americans who were sentenced to imprisonment decreased because of widespread commitment of rehabilitating offenders. By contrast since 1970s record numbers of offenders have been sentenced to prison because of an emphasis of imposing strong punishment for the purposes of retribution, deterrence and incapitation. At the beginning of 21st century voices are calling for addition of restorative justice as a criminal sanction. According to George and Smith, 2005, there are mainly 4 types of punishment: Retribution/Deserved punishment, Deterrence, Societal protection and Rehabilitation.

Effects of the 4 Types of Punishments

Retribution/Deserved punishment: Retribution is a punishment inflicted on a person who has infringed on the rights of others so deserve to be penalized. Retribution means that those who have done a particular crime should be punished alike in proportion to the gravity of the crime or the extent to which others have been made to suffer. In retribution punishment, offenders must “pay their debts”.  Some scholars claim that the desire for retribution is a basic human emotion. They maintain that if the state does not provide retributive sanctions to reflect community revolution at offensive acts, citizens will take the law into their own hands to punish offenders.

        Under this view the failure of government to satisfy the people’s desire for retribution could produce social chaos. Using the concept of just deserts or deserved punishment to define retribution, some theorists argue that one who infringes on the rights of others deserve to be punished. In this view, punishment should be only for the wrong inflicted and not primarily to achieve other goals such as deterrence, societal protection or rehabilitation (George and smith, 2005)

Deterrence: The roots of deterrence are traced back in 18th century in England among the followers of social philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He adopted Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism, which holds that human behavior is governed by the individuals’ calculation of the benefits versus the cost of his /her acts. Before stealing money for example, potential offenders would consider the punishment that others have received for similar acts would thereby be deterred. There are two types of deterrence: general deterrence which presumes that members of the public on observing the punishment of others will conclude that the crime outweighs the benefits. For general deterrence to be effective, the public must be constantly reminded about the likelihood and severity of punishment for various acts (George and smith, 2005)

        The punishment must be severe enough to instill fear of the consequences of committing a crime. By contrast specific deterrence targets the decision and behavior of the offenders who have already been convicted. Under this approach, the amount and kind of punishment are calculated to discourage that criminal from repeating the offence. The punishment must be severe enough to cause the criminal to say “the consequence of my crime were too painful, I will not commit another crime”. The concept of deterrence has obvious difficulties (Nagin, 1998). Deterrence assumes that all people think before they act.

As such deterrence does not account for people who commit crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol or mental disorder. The effectiveness of deterrence is limited as well (Nagin, 1998). A study on deterrence effects of punishment would have to examine the impacts of different forms of criminal sanction on various potential lawbreakers. Therefore while legislation often cites deterrence as a rationale for certain sanctions, no one really knows the extent to which sentencing policies based on deterrence achieve their objective.

Societal protection: This assumes that society can keep offenders from committing further crimes by detention in prison or by execution. Offenders can be confined within secure institutions and effectively prevented from committing additional harm against society for the duration of their sentence. Capital punishment is the ultimate method of societal protection. Research has suggested that a relatively small number of offenders commit a large number of violence and property crimes (George and smith, 2005). Questions arise about how to determine the length of the sentence. Presumably offenders will not be released until the state is sure that they will no longer commit crimes. Therefore the limit of this punishment is that it cannot predict accurately which offenders will commit more crime upon release.

Rehabilitation: This refers to the goal of restoring a convicted offender to a constructive place in society through some form of training or therapy. Americans want to believe that offenders can be treated and resocialised in ways that allow them to lead a crime –free productive life upon release. Over the last hundred years, rehabilitation advocates have argued for techniques that they claim identify and treat the causes of criminal behavior.

      Rehabilitation focuses on the offender. Its objective does not imply any consistent relationship between the severity of the punishment and the gravity of the crime .according to concept of rehabilitation, offenders are treated, not punished and they are returned to the society when they are cured. Studies on the results of rehabilitation have challenged the idea that criminal offenders can be cured (Margolis, 1974).


         The above methods have proved to be not too effective and the new approach to punishment is restorative justice. Restorative justice view crime as more than a violation of penal law. The criminal act practically and symbolically denies the community. This approach means that losses suffered by the crime victim are restored and the threat to the local safety is removed and the offender again becomes a fully participating member of the community. Shifting the focus to restorative justice requires a three way approach that involves the offender, the victim and the community. This approach may include mediation in which the three actors devise ways that all agree are fair and just for the offender to repair the harm done to victim and community.


George, F. C. and Smith E.G, (2005): ‘Criminal Justice in America, Criminology’, 4th Edition.

Nagin, D.1998: ‘Criminal deterrence research at the onset of the twenty-first century’: crime and justice review of research, Vol. 23.

Margolis, E.1974: ‘The effectiveness of rehabilitation punishment as a cure for crime’, research paper.

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