Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reasons for Penal Incarceration--Philosophical, Moral, and Sociological

by Richard Crews
It seems to me there are nine distinct reasons one can dissect from the historical and cultural web surrounding the practice of incarceration for a crime.

The first three of these revolve around the idea of PUNISHMENT, the most basic idea being that the individual is dealt a measure of pain (physical or emotional) for having violated society's rules. Perhaps this is easiest to separate conceptually from the other reasons if one considers a whipping or beating as punishment for a crime. Clearly this has no direct relationship with the crime itself, for example, with the goods stolen or the victim harmed.

When one moves to the second reason, retribution, the connection or relationship of the punishment with the crime begins to be asserted. This is conveyed in the concept (first embodied in the Code of Hammurabi, 1790 B.C., and later in the Old Testament of the Bible, the 1400s B.C.) of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This was originally a directive for mercy: that the criminal should not be mutilated or put to death for merely stealing something or causing an injury which was not fatal. The principle is highlighted in the operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan (1884 A.D.) when the Mikado sings, "My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime...."

The third reason under the general heading of punishment is restitution, that the individual owes recompense or repayment--that after serving ones prison term, one has "paid ones debt to society." Occasionally (mostly since the late 20th century) this incorporates a concept of victim's rights, that the victim should be paid back by the criminal commensurate with the victim's loss or the value of the crime.

There are three further reasons for penal incarceration that revolve around the idea of PROTECTING SOCIETY: First, to dissuade the individual by fear of punishment from committing further crimes. Second, to dissuade others from committing crimes by showing them a fearful example of punishment. And third, to protect society by segregating the criminal from society at large.

Finally--especially in modern, humanistic times--there are three reasons for penal incarceration that involve PROVIDING VALUE. First, to provide a convicted criminal with rehabilitative education and socialization skills so that the individual can become an integrated, non-criminal participant in society. Second, to provide society with, instead of a criminal, a productive, contributing member. And third, to enhance and extend a system of moral principles and patterns of conduct that provide for a safe and stable culture.