The relationship between punishment and sentencing philosophies can be quite intricate. While most are unfamiliar with the many reasons behind sentences, those who work in the criminal justice field are well versed in the reasons why judges hand down the sentences they do. It is true that some of the main themes of sentencing may change from state to state but the fundamentals remain the same throughout the nation.
When it comes to philosophies behind sentencing, there are four ideas that have been relied upon throughout human history. These are the ideas of retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. (Schmalleger, 11thed.Ch.11) While there are those that would like to issue some sort of restoration to the victim, these four ideas weigh heavily on the sentences handed down to those found guilty. These ideas often play out in the punishments of fines, probation, incarceration, capital punishment, restitution, and restorative justice.
Looking at retribution, we find the idea that a person who commits a crime deserves to be punished. This is one of the oldest sentencing philosophies. When thinking of retribution, one can easily picture an angry mob, pitchforks in hand. This may be because the idea of retribution for the most part has been presented by vengeful acts with little forethought. Today, people are referring to retribution when they feel that a guilty party got their just deserts. In sentencing, a judge that focuses on retribution may deal out a death sentence (or capital punishment) to a person that has been found guilty of killing another.
Seemingly hand in hand with retribution, deterrence is the philosophy that emphasizes quick and harsh punishment to prevent a person from wanting to commit crimes again. In action crimes may be dealt with by handing down long sentences of incarceration, high fines or restitution fees. This also calls to mind those areas of the world that cut off a person’s hand if they are caught stealing. While at first they may seem only like retribution, I feel this is more deterrent than anything. Those who see the handles offender will certainly think twice about stealing. The guilty party will probably think twice about it for the rest of their lives. Probation can also be thought of as deterrence. When a person is on probation, they are released under certain conditions. They may be restricted in movement and have to hold certain obligations, such as holding a job or attending substance abuse meetings. By restricting freedoms, a person can be deterred from crime and avoid a harsher imprisonment sentence that they would most certainly received if they continued down their current path.
When we speak of incarceration, we are referring to the idea that those who commit crimes need to be separated from the rest of society. This is to keep the criminal from both influencing and harming others. This is similar to the idea of locking up those with severe psychological disorders. In sentencing, incarceration takes the form of prison or jail sentences. A judge who favors this idea may be more likely to incarcerate the guilty party rather than issuing fines.
Rehabilitation is one of the newer sentencing philosophies. This idea holds that in order for a criminal to quit committing crimes, they need to make a fundamental change in their behavior. While the idea holds promise, its effectiveness has been limited due to the lack of effort to make truly great rehabilitation programs. Some feel that these programs are a waste of money because they feel that people are incapable of change. In sentencing, restitution and restorative justice works well with this philosophy. By requiring the guilty party to compensate the victim, or perhaps even work with people that have been victimized in similar ways, the criminal is forced to face the crime and learn from it.
While the ideas and practice of sentencing seem to work well together, there still seems to be high recidivism rates. I believe this is due to a lack of making the punishment fit the crime and not considering the individual in sentencing. This is particularly true with mandatory sentencing. Each person is unique and deserves a unique approach to their sentencing. Sometimes it may be necessary to use an alternative form of sentencing to get through to the criminal. To correct this, it may be beneficial to have more than one judge present at a hearing to create better ideas for sentencing an individual.
Sentencing and punishment in the United States may seem to be failing their purpose due to their high recidivism rates. However, I feel that we have all the right pieces to the puzzle. It may just be that more time needs to be spent fitting them into the right places.
Schmalleger, Frank. (2011) Criminal justice today: an introductory text for the 21st century. (11th
ed. Chapter 11) Prentice Hall.