Theories of Punishment in Criminal Justice - Essay Example

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George Washington University
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The changes witnessed in the United States politics has led to significant shifts in the theoretical tenacities of sentencing (MacKenzie, 2015). The legislations passed during the heights of liberalism days were focused more on sentencing rather than rehabilitation. However, the legislators from the conservative political times designed the sentencing laws to focus more on rehabilitation through a combination of theories that influenced the sentencing laws. Some of the major theories of correction are Retribution or Just Deserts and Deterrence.

Retribution or Just Deserts:

According to the theory, the objective of the punishment is to pay the debt of the violated law. The essence of the law is to have the punishment fit the crime committed. The proponent of this type of theory advocate that the harshness or the severity of the punishment be dispensed according to the offenders crimes. MacKenzie (2015) states that there are two ways in which the proponents of the theory approach its definition. The conservatives seek retribution by ensuring that the offender feels the kind of pain they caused. When interpreting such statement, one can conclude that the theory considers punishment as a form of expiation, such that when one has been punished accordingly to the crimes committed or the pain caused, they regain their innocence at the completion of the punishment. On the other hand, Mackenzie asserts that the liberal proponents seek to ensure that the punishment accorded to offenders are no more than the crimes committed, or the pain caused.

MacKenzie states that the theory is a non-utilitarian in that it seeks to punish the crime committed in its individuality and not to serve another purpose. The example of punishing Peter to make Paul conform that Mackenzie gives shows the difference of the retributive theory and the theories that are utilitarian. The punishment given by the retributive theory is to compel the offender to restore that what is owed to the victim and to satisfy the victims spirit of vengeance. The retributive theory does not control the crime by being a lesson to the other possible offenders, it only advocates on the justice being enforced on the offender.

The theorys aim is that justice is done in a manner that is truly deserved. From what we can see from the theory, the objective of the punishment is to substitute justice with the injustice done so that the legal bond that is forged when one has committed a crime is dissolved. However, it is nearly impossible to match punishments with the crimes committed due to the lack of ways in which the punishments can be calibrated objectively to match the crimes committed or the pain caused.


According to MacKenzie, the deterrence theory works under two concepts. The specific deterrence and the general deterrence. The specific deterrence aims to punish an offender in a way that will dissuade the offender from committing the crime in the future. The punishment in this theory is usually harsh and severe. Therefore the criminals will refrain from backsliding back to the crime to avoid the cost of the criminal sanction.

The general deterrence theory of punishment uses the convict sentenced for a crime as an example or a lesson to induce the public to refrain from criminal conduct. Deterrence theory acts on the motive of the criminal, where its punishments objective is to show the futility of the crime, hence being a lesson to others. As MacKenzie notes, the society will refrain from engaging in the crime after witnessing the kind of punishment accorded to the offenders. The general deterrence theory causes fear among the persons whose intent might have been to commit the crime punished.

The proponents of the theory give the idea behind the punishment as that of preventing crime. MacKenzie asserts that the theory punishes the crime and not the offender. While the punishment accorded means to prevent individuals and the public from committing the offense, the theory fails to achieve its goal. Most hardened criminals at the end will become accustomed to the punishment hence no matter the severity of the punishment, he/she will relapse into the crime. Critics of the theory argue that some crimes cannot be deterred simply because they were committed under the influence or the offenders were not of sound mind. This is because the offenders could not have weighed the cost of committing the crime against the perceived benefits of their acts.

MacKenzie notes that deterrence theory will only provide a basis for some particular kind of correctional system where the criminal is not punished but the crime itself. The utilitarian nature of the theory does not seek to achieve retribution but to control the crimes by inducing fear among the offenders and the public so as to reduce the overall crime rates and also imposing minimal punishment because the punishment is evil in itself. Exponents of the theory do not mind the reformative values or the retributive necessity but only values deterrence of crime.

Works Cited

MacKenzie, Doris Layton. Evidence-Based Corrections. What Works in Corrections: Reducing the Criminal Activities of Offenders and Deliquents, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 2032. Cambridge Studies in Criminology.

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