Which theory of punishment can a society deter future recidivism

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Plato and Aristotle say that punishment often acts as medicine, curing the evildoer by its very painfulness. J. Ellis McTaggart supports both philosophers adding that "painfulness (positive or negative) is an essential property". While some philosophers such as Locke and Bentham insist on the need for pain, others may disagree as one may question whether the state has the right to punish individuals in society. Personally, the word punishment awakens memories of correction rather than pain. Growing up, I knew that when I heard 'punishment' come out of my parents' mouth, it meant that I had to serve my consequence for my wrongdoing. But never would I associate the word pain with punishment, but rather deprivation; depriving offenders with the most basic right: to live freely in society. However, one thing that practically all philosophers can nearly unanimously agree on is that punishment involves unpleasantness in a form of anguish. Punishment is imposed based on the ideology that it will deter individuals from committing an offence or recidivism. Humanity, I believe, is ultimately the measure of punishment. As mankind evolves, the definition of punishment revolutionize accordingly to the moral norms of society. In the eighteenth century in Canada, the need of punishment with physical torture and revenge such as the practice of public executions were traditional punishment practices. One of the most outstanding changes in the modern philosophy of punishment is unquestionably the extent to which consequentialist utilitarian ideas have been abandoned while retributivist ideas have regained popularity. Canada seemed to favour restorative justice and rehabilitation as a form of punishment as punishment practices. However, the recent change in the elected government platform has disturbed the idea and their decisions to change laws regarding punishment seem to be heading toward the practice of retributive justice.

Governments have established several theories to support the use of punishment in furtherance of maintaining order in society. There are three general philosophies in which theories of punishment can be divided into: utilitarian, retributive, and restorative justice. The utilitarian theory of punishment seeks to discipline offenders in order to deter future wrongdoings. This theory follows a 'consequential' concept such that human acts should be judged by their consequences. It recognizes that by punishing, a cost exists for both the offender and society and holds that the total good produced by the punishment should exceed the total negative cost. For example the release of an inmate with poor health who is suffering from an incapacitating disease. If the prisoner's death is imminent, society is not served by his continued confinement because he is no longer capable of committing crimes.

Rehabilitation is form of utilitarian rationale for punishment. Rehabilitative therapy, utilitarians believe, can be a form of punishment as it denies one from one's basic right of freedom for an extended amount of time in order to implement treatment. This therapeutic service is meant to alter an offender's moral values so that he functions in a way in which the society views as normal. Contrary to the retributive theory, this punishment upholds the humanizing belief in the notion that offenders have the ability to be saved if given the correct chance to change their behaviour. For, simply caging and deserting offenders behind bars, (as the Canadian judicial system does not distribute death penalties) will not cure their social aberration. The objective of rehabilitation is to prevent future crime by providing offenders with the aptitude to change the direction of their life within the confines of the law. This idea alone conveys the message that the state has a duty to aid those who do not meet the standard behaviour that the state sets. Offenders are often met with many social disadvantages as result of their criminal record. However, rehabilitation incorporates the use of community service work and educational programs which give offenders the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the job market. For example, in Canada, projects such as working with animals on a farm, repairing damages in the community, coaching sports teams, and cleaning parks have been proven effective, as a number of offenders have continued as volunteers or have began a career in their work order placements even after the terms of order was complete. Furthermore, many Canadian correctional officers following the progress of these offenders claim to observe an increase in positive behaviour as well as a smoother reintegration into society through the aid of rehabilitation. The rehabilitative ideal acknowledges that offenders are humans themselves and makes a justified attempt to alter an offender in order to prevent him from repeating the criminal act. By making an attempt to reduce recidivism through therapeutic rehabilitation, the utilitarian school of thought promotes society with the right to live in a safe community, and protect individuals from the victimization of crime.

Do offenders have the right to rehabilitation?

Under the utilitarian philosophy, decisions, punishments, and laws should be used to maximize the happiness of society. Because punishment is inconsistent with happiness, utilitarians endeavor to impose only enough punishment required to prevent future crimes from happening again. From the surface, rehab would look like an appealing alternative (instead of allowing offenders to serve their whole sentence locked up behind bars) that would appease utilitarian philosophers, as the overall benefit for both the offender and society would exceed the evil. Offenders would have the opportunity to reintegrate into the community and be a contributor to society while they gain work experience and do something worthwhile while serving their sentence.

However, recently, the Canadian government uncovered the hefty amount of tax-payers money going into these programs. According to Christa McGregor of Correctional Services of Canada (CSC), CSC spends approximately $4 million annually on operating prison farms across Canada which have resulted in the government's decision to place funds elsewhere. The controversial decision has created a frenzy as many outraged citizens have recently began to campaign and have even created road blocks attempting to obstruct government officials from discontinuing the operation of prison farms. Prison farms have helped local communities as they have generated produce, some even running at a profit. Liberal Agriculture Critic, Wayne Easter claims that "Local farmers appreciate the benefits of these productive prison farms for stimulating the local agricultural economy". On the other hand, officials claim that the rationale behind closing the farms was that of the 13, 286 prison inmates in 2009 that Canada's prison system housed, only 300 inmates worked on the system's six farms meaning that approximately 2% of the population worked on the farm. The unfair treatment has resulted in the phasing out of this program. Their controversial move begs the question: so does that justify the government's decision?

Through the many cases of violations of human rights and mistrials one is exposed to in the vast media network, one begins to be persuaded that the state's effort to 'do good' are by and large ineffective or 'not enough'. In an evidence-based era of correction that society has set-up, much of the debate about rehabilitation revolves around whether treatment programs are effective in reducing recidivism. This focus can be traced to Robert Martinson, a criminologist who changed the perspective of many modern criminologists through a systematic assessment of rehab programs in his literature. His account of the observations that he conducted was famously called the 'nothing works' essay because he concluded that the greater majority of rehabilitative efforts have had no appreciable effect on recidivism. This led him to ask, 'Does nothing work?' Conservatives have long been skeptical of this 'medical model' notion because they believed that judges and parole officials undercut deterrence and incapacitation by their sparing use of imprisonment and by their proclivity to parole dangerous inmates prematurely. That being said, the Harper government, being the left wing that they are, recently took their skeptical beliefs and turned it into reality. The Canadian government unveiled a new plan to 'tighten the parole system' resulting in the decision to expand prisons in order to increase the amount of cells and decrease, or rather cut the budget on rehabilitative programs such as prison farms.

Rehabilitation as Restorative Justice

Restorative justice directs its attention to the needs of victims as well as the offenders rather than the need to satisfy the abstract principles of law or the need of the community to exact punishment. It is based on a theory of justice that concentrates on the crimes and wrong doings committed against the individual or community rather than the state. Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Correctional Services of Canada fashion this new non-retributive approach. Results to date indicate that victims who participate in a restorative justice programs experience a far higher rate of satisfaction than they had previously gained from the traditional justice system.

How do we justify punishment? A look through the John Howard society of Canada

The John Howard society of Canada is a charitable organization that delivers services to pro-socially integrate offenders who are serving the end of their punishment to avoid repeat offences. According to the John Howard society of Canada, they take a new look on rehabilitation contrasting the definition of rehabilitation with punishment. Their studies of science argue that punishment does not make people pro-social. Their research shows that longer prison sentences are not an effective method of rehabilitation, nor an effective way of reducing crime. They promote the provisions of adequate social supports, which reliably reduce rates of crime and victimization. Should society be following the John Howard's society's approach to restorative justice?

it views punishment as a prima facie evil since it involves the infliction of harm. This harm can be justified if it has greater benefits in terms of maintaining order in the community, or similar, but the utilitarian position is that if punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.

Jeremy Bentham and the principles of Utility

Jeremy Bentham on punishment


Retributive theory

The counterpart to the utilitarian theory of punishment is the retributive theory. The notion of retributive justice is based on the idea of punishment that the wrongdoer deserves. For example if a serial killer kills an abundance of people, his life deserves to be taken away. Retribution has gained its popularity amongst legislators in Canada as a justification of punishment. The proposed revision of the Criminal Code of 'tightening the parole system' in Canada adopts a new standard and deserts previous Liberal approach to rehabilitation. Under this theory, offenders are punished for criminal behavior because they deserve punishment. Immanuel Kant, an advocate of this theory, believes that criminal behaviour perturbs the peaceful balance of society, and punishment helps to restore the balance. Furthermore, retributivists do not believe rehabilitation as just form of punishment. In contrary to the utilitarian theory, the retributive theory focuses on the crime itself as the reason for imposing punishment. Where the utilitarian theory looks forward by basing punishment on social benefits, the retributive theory looks backward at the transgression as the basis for punishment. Many retributivists believe in Martinson's theory of 'nothing works', as rehabilitation is an easy way out for many offenders. Prison conditions are never good, as ill-treatment of prisoners is often discussed in the media. Many are aware that prisons are poor places for rehabilitation. If the Canadian government were pursuing the retributive theory, this would justify their decision, as offenders should not have the option for rehabilitation as there need not to be social benefit from inmates because they deserve to be punished for their reprehensible crime.

How is retribution justified?

For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German idealist, retribution is justified by "the good" that is supposedly comes out of it". To him, it is justified is that "that crime is to be cancelled out, not as production of an evil, but as the violation of the right as a right… the crime is justified merely because it is in for itself just." Hegel holds that punishment is inherently just, and that the justice of punishment can be explained without reference to the expected consequences of punishment (e.g., reform or deterrence). But rather than appealing to the notion that the criminal deserves to be punished, he instead claims that the criminal will is inherently null, and punishment is merely a way of expressing this status by explicitly nullifying the criminal's action. 

It might be argued that a retributive standard responds to the people's morality, and more specifically to their anger at the criminal. However, modern government is supposed to serve people's needs, without interfering with people's passion. In addition, retributive discourse is likely to worsen one of the most serious problems in criminal justice, which is the over-use of imprisonment, particularly for non-violent offenders. For example a vigilante who steals bread for the sake of survival for his family is sentenced to two months in jail, sharing his time with murders.

The Problems with Retribution

The idea with retribution is that people should be treated the way that they deserve. However, there is a dangerous and damaging tendency that people blur the line between retributive justice and revenge. Vengeance is based off of retaliation; it is matter of the getting even with the wrongdoer. Vengeance can illustrate to the wrongdoer the feeling of being of mistreated. Feelings of revenge often have emotional attachment such as resentment or hatred. Because of the intense feelings that humans have, resulting retributive punishments may cause further antagonism. Furthermore, punishment that is dictated by revenge usually do not satisfy principles of proportionality or consistency with the law, as a human emotion may disrupt one's decision to sentence a fair sentence to the offender and may lead to reciprocal acts of violence. For example, an unfair trial, may lead an offender to resent the state. Extreme, harsh punishments do not make the community a safer place or more secure, as retribution only serves to increase the level of harm and does not increase the level of happiness in society. Retribution is only a temporary fix, as this theory fails to address the problem of recidivism, as after the wrongdoer is locked up to serve his sentence, and no one is there to correct or provide treatment for 'wrong' behaviour. Offenders are like children. If children are left to be and not corrected by their parents or teachers for the mistakes that they have committed, they will never learn of what is expected. Similarly, offenders need a mentor through rehabilitation to correct their behaviour. If denied the chance, offenders will be unable to acknowledge what they have done wrong and serving time by sitting behind bars will act like 'a slap on the wrist'. Many believe that it is morally correct that "the victim should not seek revenge and become a new victimizer but instead should forgive the offender and end the cycle of offense."Therefore retribution is unable to address the issue of recidivism.

How much is the right amount?

The 'right amount' is ultimately set by society. When considering an ideal society, it is one where majority of citizens accepts how the state is run. Gradually as citizens accept the impeded laws and the state gains the trust of the state's perception of justice, they will also adjust the way in which the state chooses to measure infliction of punishment. John Rawl, in his literature, 'Theory of Justice' suggested that punishment be based as far as possible upon the pre-social 'veil of ignorance' situation which existed in the more primitive era of natural justice. The complications which perplex the punishment of offenders such as social status, relative economic advantage, honesty, intelligence, play a great role in determining the sentence. The right amount of punishment is largely decided by societal guidelines in addition to the severity of the offence in society's eyes and the act that the wrongdoer illustrates during his trial. Plato once said" "The punishment which the wise suffer, who refuse to take part in government, is to live under the government of worse men". The right amount is determined through society's moral ranking of the sin committed by the individual.


In conclusion, from the evaluation of the theories of punishment, utilitarianism through rehabilitation is the most effective theory of punishment when compared to retribution. It not only seeks justice by seeking the maximum overall benefit for both offender and society, but it also provides a solution to the growing rate of recidivism in Canada. Stephen Harper's strong punitive step in his retributive plan to tighten punishment would not be effective in preventing individuals from repeating a criminal act. However, the utilitarian school of thought address the issue of deterring future crime through therapeutic punishment: rehabilitation.

Contrarily, the retributive theory his limited consideration on recidivism nor on multiple offending have succeeded in providing an adequate answer as to how the views can be defended within a retributivist framework. Thus the Conservative government's move will not deter future crime in which they hoped to accomplish.