Punishment In The United States Criminology Essay

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Crime is likely to have existed since the dawn of civilization. In an effort to protect its populous against crime as well as suppress crime, societies, clans and tribes have established laws. Through the years, these laws have been established, refined and enforced in an attempt to uphold societal order. Amid the ocean of law is punishment for those who perform devious actions. Acts of deviant behavior have been an area of social concern throughout the United States. Persons found guilty of deviant behavior have been dealt with in the course of various manners and intensities of punishment. The United States validates four modes of punishment - deterrence, societal protection, retribution, and rehabilitation. The proceeding textual content details the societal effectiveness of each of these punishments, which form of punishment most effectively depresses crime, and if the consequences of the punishment is reasoned as 'beneficial' to society as well as the criminal.

Justifying Punishment

Under United States of America law, punishment necessitates justification of cause. This justification often involves imposing some form of harm to individuals who disobey that which is law. The truth behind the application of punishment is not if it should hurt an individual but if the justification of said punishment makes sense. When a 15 year-old girl walking home from school is killed by a stray bullet, society becomes enraged. They believe that the individuals responsible for such a horrific act of violence must be punished. In situations such as this, society expects the criminal justice system to punish the offenders to the maximum extent of the law. The questions here are, who has the right to punish said individuals, and how much punishment is justified? This; however, increases societies questions about moral and ethical issues concerning discrimination and equality. Consequently, the concept of punishment affects those who behaved defiantly and those who decide what form of punishment needs to be applied.


Macionis (2006, p. 182) defines deterrence as "the attempt to discourage criminality through the use of punishment". The nature of this punishment is a recognized form of crime prevention. Since the eighteenth century, society has believed that individuals capable of rational thought would not behave deviantly if individual understand that the burdens of punishment would overshadow the amusement of committing the crime (Macionis, 2006).

Deterrence materialized as a method of reform in an attempt to reduce stark chastisement, for example, the use of the death penalty. As expected, the approach of deterrence is to dissuade persons from committing crime. "While general deterrence strategies focus on future behaviors, specific deterrence focuses on the punishment of an identified deviant in an attempt to prevent him or her from repeating a crime and violating the particular norms they have broken" (Keel, 2005, ¶ 6). Presently, this form of punishment is defensible in various types of cases; however, it is distinctively exercised cases of capital punishment. With capital punishment cases, there is no intent of reform for the offender who committed a murder, thus deterrence is justified as an example to discourage other offenders from committing murder.


Retribution, the oldest form of justification is defined as "an act of moral vengeance by which society makes the offender suffers as much as the suffering caused by the crime" (Macionis, 2006, p.182). Essentially, retribution is understood by many as "an eye for eye" or "do unto them as they have done unto others". Consequently, this form of punishment has been designed as a form of closure to satisfy and restore society's needs and moral orders (Macionis, 2006).

Retribution is the element of justice, which stands by those who abide by the law and punishes those who deviate. Consequently, it is believed that this form of punishment does not seek to reduce crimes or deviant behaviors. Conversely, this act of punishment is presumed as doing little to reform the offender (Macionis, 2006). In opposition, others argue that retribution punishes the criminal, to the extent of restoring him or her back into the moral order of society; however, societies still consider "vengeance reason enough for punishment" (Macionis, 2006, p. 182). When an individual commits a murder, the justice system can rationalize and justify the death penalty as equal punishment for the crime. While maintaining the moral order of society, it is understood that the offender deserves punishment; therefore, retribution is applied as the system of penalties are assessed.


Rehabilitation the third justification for punishment is defined as "a program for reforming the offender to prevent later offenses" (Macionis, 2006, p. 182). Criminal courts impose rehabilitation sentences to reform the offenders. This programs approach is to motivate the offender to conform, by providing specific forms of service such as alcohol and drug treatment facilities. Although deterrence is one of the "primary goals of the criminal justice system, it is believed that rehabilitation is a more permanent way of deterring crime" (Larrabee, 2006, Para. 6). Additional forms of rehabilitation programs include probation and community service. These forms of punishment are an approach toward assisting the offender in minor cases of deviant behavior such as anger management and therapy (Larrabee, 2006).

The justification of rehabilitation is to create a change in the offender's attitude or surroundings. "When an individual is sentenced to probation, it gives them the opportunity to remain self-supporting within the community and not using the taxpayer and states money to house them in a correctional facility" (Larrabee, 2006, Para. 2). Researchers often argue that "programs that are targeted toward offenders' risks and needs can have a positive effect on key outcomes" (Tonry, 2007, Para 8). "The difficulty is that program classification criteria relate primarily to offenders' personal histories and characteristics and not to their current crimes" (Para. 40).

Societal Protection

The final justification for punishment is societal protection. This form of punishment is defined as "rendering an offender incapable of further offenses temporarily through imprisonment or permanently by execution" (Macionis, 2006, p. 183). Like deterrence, this form of punishment is a modern and rational approach to protecting citizens from crime (Macionis, 2006). This form of punishment has been established in an effort to protect society from violent offenders; however, this form of punishment has increased the number of offenders incarcerated in the United States today. Furthermore, because of the increased application of this punishment, over 2 million people are imprisoned due to tougher laws (Macionis, 2006).

Deterring Crime

The four justifications for punishment discussed above appear to have common characteristics that complement each other in some way. Although the approach may be different, each justification involves similar goals. The effect of each punishment consists of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation to some extent. Furthermore, if some members of society believe that rehabilitation and deterrence are unreasonable; when imposing a penalty, the only practical form of punishment is retribution (Paolo, 2001).

Research shows that "despite record levels of incarceration and the role that incarceration plays in influencing criminal activity, there does not exist a sound knowledge base about the extent to which incarceration exhibits deterrent or null effects on subsequent individual offending trajectories" (Bhati and Piquero, 2007, Para 1). For years, there have been numerous attempts to portray punishment as the infliction of unpleasant circumstances toward the offender (Shaswata, n.d.). While some theories of punishment rely upon humanitarian forms of punishment, they are weak against the more vicious criminals.

Punishments such as retribution and deterrence can be used as an instrument of fear to curb the occurrence of crime for some individuals. Additionally, this form of punishment helps in controlling criminal behavior up to a certain extent (Shaswata, n.d.). Hence, although these forms of punishment "employ the idea of revenge and vengeance, these are much harsher than others" (Shaswata, n.d. Para 45). In retrospect, society needs to decide what forms of punishment are deemed necessary. "If society chooses for revenge there will be a steady growth in crime. If society wants to reduce crime, it must change laws. Society must tolerate many other conducts because intolerance results in hundreds of offenses" (Frazer, 2008, Para 38). Therefore, there is no known punishment known to deter crime to a full extent.

The Benefits of Punishment

The justifications of punishment have been discussed; however, the underlying fact remains that none of them have proven to stop crime. The benefits of such punishments vary significantly but none proves to stop criminal behavior. Thus, "there are relatively few studies that compare recidivism rates for the offenders sentenced to jail or prison with those offenders given some alternative to incarceration (typically probation)" (Spohn, 2007). Criminals who are released back into society have already acquired criminalist behaviors, which hardened even more with their confinement; therefore, it is difficult for them to adjust to the harshness of society's negative views on criminals. Research shows that, "offenders who were sentenced to prison were significantly more likely than offenders placed on probation to be arrested and charged with a new offense" (Spohn, 2007). In addition, the application of rehabilitation, although a positive approach, is deemed as too lenient. Finally, the societal protection approach does not benefit the offender because this form of punishment does not help the individual change. The only benefit to this punishment is that it separates the criminal from society.


Punishment as a component of the law in the United States has been established to deter deviant behaviors; however, some citizens continue to deviate from such laws. Although the question remains as to why anyone should be allowed to inflict intentional harm to others, the need to justify the punishment exceeds far beyond reasoning. What society knows for sure is that punishment is one of the main goals of justice imposed to protect the citizens. Perhaps, finding a solution to the root of the crime is the best strategy to deter a crime. Conceivably, society's historical need for justification need not be to legitimate punishment itself but rather to distinguish justice from retribution and punishment from revenge.