The Ethics of Punishment and Rehabilitation: Part III

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

In The Ethics of Punishment and Rehabilitation: Part I and II, I talked before about rationales, or justifications, for punishing persons who have broken the law (retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation), and about broad ethical issues surrounding punishments for breaking the law.  I want to focus here on the specific ethical issues surrounding rehabilitation.

According to Francis T. Cullen, rehabilitation is a planned intervention designed to promote a specific change in offenders.  It is based on the idea that people commit crimes because of psychological, social, or economic factors, and that if these factors are addressed, or “fixed,” we can reduce their likelihood of engaging in future crimes. 

At face value, the definitions of “punishment” and “rehabilitation” might seem at odds.  But the fact of the matter is, we rehabilitate within the context of punishment. That is, whether we put someone on probation or sentence them to prison, part of the expectation is that they will receive some type of service or treatment that will help “fix” them.  And, although most of us view treatment as beneficial to the offender, because it is usually mandated by the court it is often perceived by offenders to be a form of punishment. It’s seen as just one more thing they have to do to satisfy the court. Ethical concerns about rehabilitation center around two questions: What type of treatment can be required? And how much treatment is too much? 

There isn’t a lot of case law or precedent to help us answer these questions. But in recent years, most states have implemented policies that require treatment to be “evidence-based.” That is, there must be empirical support that demonstrates that the types of treatment being used are effective at reducing recidivism – the chance of reoffending.  Cognitive-behavioral therapies, for example, have been shown to contribute to reductions in recidivism, and are popular within correctional settings. 

As for how much is too much? Well, that seems to be a slippery slope. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that over-treating offenders can have detrimental effects, and even increase the likelihood of recidivism. Based on this research, there are guidelines as to how much treatment or services low, medium, and high risk offenders should receive. But there is no hard and fast rule that helps us to determine when treatment requirements become excessive, or unfair. We don’t think of it in those terms — after all, it’s treatment, not punishment. The problem is that privileges and freedoms are often tied to the completion of treatment. For example, an offender might get released from electronic monitoring once he has completed substance abuse treatment, or an inmate might earn time off her sentence once she completes an anger management program. If the offender falters, however, the treatment can be extended without any type of formal hearing. And with the extended treatment, comes prolonged punishment and extended controls over the individual.   

The ethical issues associated with correctional rehabilitation cannot be cast aside simply because its practices seem less onerous than those tied to other punishment ideologies.  Citizens’ liberties are still at stake.  We must exercise caution as we push forward with a rehabilitative approach to prevent and control crime. 

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