The Ethics of Punishment and Rehabilitation: Part I

EKU Online > The Ethics of Punishment and Rehabilitation: Part I

By: Dr. Betsy Matthews, coordinator of the EKU Online Corrections and Juvenile Justice Program

How and Why Do We Punish in the United States?

The role of corrections is to carry out the punishment administered by the court.  But what exactly is “punishment”?  According to Joycelyn M. Pollock, author of “Prisons Today and Tomorrow,” punishment is defined as “unpleasantness or pain administered by one in lawful authority in response to another’s transgression of law or rules.”

Punishment serves both psychological and social purposes. For psychologists, punishment is about reducing undesirable behavior. For sociologists, punishment is about enforcing social norms and exercising power and control over those who transgress. Either way, punishment comes with a multitude of ethical issues attached. 

In the United States, we use four major rationales, or justifications, for punishing persons who have broken the law:

  • Retribution — We punish people because they caused harm to another, and thus, they deserve to experience harm in return.
  • Deterrence — We punish people so that they themselves, and others watching, will realize the costs attached to criminal behavior and decide not to engage in crime again.
  • Rehabilitation — We punish people to address psychological, social, or economic factors that contributed to their criminal behavior and reduce their likelihood of engaging in future crime.
  • Incapacitation — We punish people by physically restricting their movements and freedom, by separating them from society so that they can do no more harm.

Regardless of the justification for punishment, there is always the danger of taking it too far, of being excessive, or overly intrusive. The social contract gives the State the authority to exercise control over those who break its laws. But it also limits that authority to that which is necessary for our protection. That means that the type and length of punishment should consist of the least intrusive method necessary for public protection. But does it? 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, by the end of 2018, one in 40 adults in the US were under some type of correctional supervision.  And, at 655 per 100,000 residents, we continue to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We are increasingly willing to arrest, convict, and punish persons who break the law. We have cast a very broad net of social control that is costing State governments about $59 billion annually.

And what about the nature of the punishments themselves? Although we have discontinued some of the most egregious forms of punishment, is what we do today any more humane? We lock people up for long periods of time in crowded, brutal conditions. And in the community, we use methods of surveillance that are increasingly intrusive. When you combine these facts with statistics revealing that we continue to have higher rates of violence than most other civilized countries, you begin to question the ethics of punishment in the United States. 

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