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Please Don’t Kill Me: A Look Inside American Punishment Essay

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Updated: Aug 24th, 2021

Punishment, in its various forms, has been a central theme to American society. People believe that criminals or perpetrators of social vices should repay, in some respect, a debt. Citizens want that feeling of justice. Within American society, there are four broad categories of justice: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection. Communities differ in value systems and judgment. The diversity in American culture leads to the conflicts on exactly which of the categories is the most effective. Other considerations deal with the benefits of the various forms of punishment, whether to criminals or society.

Central to retributive justice is the notions of merit and desert. (Von Hirsch, 2007). People should receive what they deserve. This means that people who work hard deserve the fruits of their labor, while those who break the rules deserve to be punished. In addition, people deserve to be treated in the same way that they voluntarily choose to treat others. Liberman (2006) explains that retributive justice requires that the punishment fit the crime and that cases be treated alike. Criminals deserve blame and punishment in direct proportion to the harm inflicted. Retribution can therefore be seen as vengeance curbed by outside intervention and the principles of proportionality and individual rights. It is commonly thought that formal institutions with trained judiciaries are best equipped to carry out just retribution.

Opposition to the retribution theory states that victims seek only to qualm their emotion, and retribution does nothing to prevent further actions. (Misleh, 2004).On the other hand, deterrence theory states that an offender’s punishment should be just sufficient to prevent future instances of the offense. Western (2007) says rehabilitation works by changing the costs and benefits of the situation so that criminal activity becomes an unattractive option. The most common forms of punishment that fit this description are fines, jail time, and corporal punishment. They are designed to induce all individuals to complete the cost and benefit analysis in order to generally inhibit them from perpetrating the harm in the first place. The punishment is supposed to create a realization within the individual of the consequences before they act.

Deterrence is based on a rational choice model. Thus, the likelihood of detection and prosecution factor heavily in its calculation. Sitren & Applegate (2007) say, “In general, crimes that are unlikely to be detected require more severe penalties to maintain the same expected value of punishment. Thus, crimes with little or no chance of detection should receive relatively severe punishment in those instances when they are detected. Conversely, crimes with a high detection probability require no such escalation, as the expected value of punishment approaches the actual punishment given.” For example, the ancient method of cutting off the hands of thieves would be determined as a form of deterring punishment. Key to this theme of deterrence is the idea that the punishment should be carried out in a public forum. (Ward, Stafford, & Gray, 2006).

When a perpetrator is caught, it is desirable to ensure that others learn the consequences of violating the rule. Accordingly, it is important that wrongdoers be punished publicly and severely so that other potential criminals learn by example. It follows that punishment need not be proportional to the harm of the crime but rather to the amount of publicity it will acquire. From a general deterrence perspective, a private punishment serves no purpose and thus is an immoral act. (Hylton, 2005). Conversely, cases that receive increasing amounts of publicity should receive corresponding increments of punishment. Those who call for harsh penalties to make an example of the perpetrator may be doing so from a deterrence perspective.

In contrast to other forms of punishment, advocating rehabilitation has become commonplace for many. In everyday language, the term social rehabilitation encompasses a very broad range of meanings, which is why it is often difficult to understand. Also, in practice, it is not always clear what is meant by social rehabilitation. Hausken and Moxnes (2005) contend:

The ambiguity of the concept of social rehabilitation does not result from it being outdated. Societies are different, and, consequently, the content of social rehabilitation varies. However, the most general justifications of social rehabilitation are universal human rights and developing equal opportunities. Human rights highlight equality and nondiscrimination.

Improving these conditions should be the objective of social rehabilitation, and it is a part of rehabilitation that these circumstances are made suitable for a person as far as possible.

An issue that makes it difficult to understand social rehabilitation is that in almost all rehabilitation, there is a social aspect. It is usual that family and community are involved. The aim of all rehabilitation is to find ways for people to participate in the community and in social life, for example, at home or in working life. Then there are specific methods. Cartwright (2007) clarifies social functioning as an ability or capacity for social activity, and it is something distinct from the environment. Specific methods are needed to help to develop social functioning or social activities. When thinking about how to help improve an individual’s social functioning ability, methods, services, and programs become the cornerstones. As such, the perpetrator is the center of attention and how to assist them becomes the ultimate goal.

The community is the focus when it comes to social protection. Since the government is accountable to and elected by the public, the government must respond when change is demanded. The government’s reaction to the public’s concern and fear of crime is often one that results in changes to correctional functions. (Ward, Stafford, & Gray, 2006). Calls for harsher measures against offenders originate from the public. The government, correctional agencies, and police agencies then respond with actions set to appease the emotions of the general public. Western (2007) argues that continuing pleas for harsher penalties and sporadic changes to offender legislation demonstrate that fear continues regardless of legislation and enforcement.

Furthermore, society wants to know the identity and the location of perpetrators. Community notification was a concept introduced to protect the public and inform them of where dangerous offenders were locating themselves. Liberman (2006) says that this concept was the result of countless episodes of sexual offense towards children. Moreover, community notification has been called a legislative move that came about because of victims’ rights groups increasing intolerance of such actions. The public fears these offenders, and in order to prevent themselves from becoming the victim of such offenders, they demand to know who and where these people are.

Most cases of criminal activity will cause the forms of punishment to overlap one another. For instance, social protection overlaps with any of the other areas and leaves the most ambiguity. Therefore, social protection is effective insofar as it relates to which punishment the offender receives under the other forms of punishment. (Tonry, 2007). Wenzel and Thielmann (2006) state that rehabilitation facilities have a history of cycling offenders in and out of treatment. Deterrence, like social protection, is only as effective as the offender allows it to be. Retribution, on the other hand, provides a solid basis for punishment in reference to the merit and desert argument. The decision is left with the criminals and other offenders as to how they internalize the punishment if they do at all. However, this is not the focus of retribution. For the victims and society at large, retribution is the most effective punishment when it comes to criminal activity and social disorders.

Opponents to retribution claim that the severity is dependant on the victim’s sense of wrongdoing and, in some cases, can lead to escalation of violence. The severity of the crime is dictated by society and the standards that are set within that society. (Hylton, 2005). The victim is a member of that society and, as such, they develop the same sense of justice. Since American society allows elected officials to make those decisions of justice, there is not reason to believe retribution could not be written into the new law. If an individual is found guilty of murder, they will be sentenced to the death penalty. Retribution is simple; the individual gets the same punishment as the action they took.

Punishment in American society will continue to be an emotionally charged debate. With the diversity in cultures, different views are expressed about how to handle crime and social disturbances. There is, however, one central focus on Americans. They want to know justice has been served, regardless of the manner in which it should be carried out. Four forms of punishment have been fundamental to this debate: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and social protection. Retribution, more than the rest, serves what Americans want, justice.


Cartwright, P. (2007). Crime, punishment, and consumer protection. Journal of Consumer Policy, 30(1), 1-20.

Hausken, K., & Moxnes, J. F. (2005). The Dynamics of Crime and Punishment. International Journal of Modern Physics C: Computational Physics & Physical Computation, 16(11), 1701-1732.

Hylton, K. N. (2005). The Theory of Penalties and the Economics of Criminal Law. Review of Law and Economics, 1(2), 175-201.

Liberman, P. (2006). An Eye for an Eye: Public Support for War Against Evildoers. International Organization, 60(3), 687-722.

Misleh, D. J. (2004). Emerging Issues: The Faith Communities and the Criminal Justice System. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 23(1/2), 111-131.

Sitren A.H., & Applegate, B. K. (2007). Testing the Deterrent Effects of Personal and Vicarious Experience with Punishment and Punishment Avoidance. Deviant Behavior, 28(1), 29-55.

Tonry, M. (2007). Looking Back to See the Future of Punishment in America. Social Research, 74(2), 353-378.

Von Hirsch, A. (2007). The Desert Model for Sentencing: Its Influence, Prospects, and Alternatives. Social Research, 74(2), 413-434.

Ward, D. A., Stafford, M. C., & Gray, L. N. (2006). Rational Choice, Deterrence, and Theoretical Integration. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(3), 571-585.

Wenzel, M., & Thielmann, I. (2006). Why We Punish in the Name of Justice: Just Desert versus Value Restoration and the Role of Social Identity. Social Justice Research, 19(4), 450-470.

Western, B. (2007). The Prison Boom and the Decline of American Citizenship. Society, 44(5) 30-36.

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