Some thoughts on the criminal justice system: why it’s impossible to get right

When someone commits a crime, the question of punishment is the first to come to mind. One has to ask themselves: what do I want out of my response to this criminal? In my estimation, there are 4 answers to this question today. First, to punish. Retribution as an attempt to create some “justice” and to “right an imbalance” in the world. Second, to protect. Keeping society well clear of our most hardened and vicious offenders, so more people don’t suffer from their illegal and destructive actions. Third, to rehabilitate. Changing the psychology and social position of the criminal so when they are released, they can conform to societal structures that they previous failed to handle. Finally, to prevent. Invoke fear into the hearts and minds of criminals that they won’t commit a crime out of the possibility of personal suffering.

Well, the question becomes, which should we preference? To answer this, we must first determine the type of ethics or justice we are attempting to invoke, and then weigh them up against one another, working out what order we should priorities our 4 outcomes of the criminal justice system.

Punishment appeals to the principle of “Justice”, a notoriously difficult idea to exemplify or explicate. There is no “justice” we can point to in the real world, and, while Plato might refer to a Justice as a balance within the city and the soul, that doesn’t seem to be the reason we want criminals to suffer. Instead, it seems retributive, an attempt to placate the families and people who suffered at the hands of the crime. So instead of “justice”, we might understand the reason we punish as “vengefulness”. We fulfil some animalistic desire to “get back” at the people who didn’t follow the rules. This seems inherently problematic, but we’ll come back to the importance of punishment later.

Second, protection of society appeals to simple utilitarianism. We don’t want more people to be hurt, so we don’t let the hurters hang out with the rest of the normal, un-abrasive individuals who aren’t in the clink. There are two problems with this theory: first, it might be problematic when we look at some crimes that are relatively victimless. Smoking marijuana grown from a plant in your back garden is a great example; no harms, yet unfortunately, in many societies across the world, marijuana is highly illegal and punishable by death (or imprisonment—the death of freedom). Second, when putting someone in prison actually makes them all the worse. It’s referred to as a “university of crime”, as if you go in with a diploma of car-jacking and come out with a PhD in rape and murder. While that might be a trope, it is entrenched in some reality- in you surround yourself with other violent people, you probably learn things through osmosis. Also, you might begin to resent the state which is keeping you here, making you even more likely to fight back and become angry, committing more crime when you are let free.

Third, rehabilitation. This is another utilitarian calculus: if we can stop these people committing crimes, we can make their life better, and the people around them are less likely to be attacked or suffer the effects of crimes. This one has the least problems with it, and should quite obviously be preference above the rest. There is no harm in attempting to rehabilitate, unless we give weight to the idea of punishment being “justice”, which requires much more argumentation than “we stop people physically suffering at the hands of criminals” (the hopeful effect of rehabilitation).

Finally, the one that causes the most issues- prevention. It also appeals to utility, attempting to stop people doing crime out of fear. Also seems VERY reasonable and legitimate…. But it contradicts everything we just discussed. If we want people not to want to come to prison, it can’t be wonderful. But if it’s not wonderful, then we are unlikely to be able to rehabilitate them, and we end up with worse prisoners. So we can’t rehabilitate and prevent at the same time, because they necessarily negate one another.


The outcome? I have no idea. I don’t think we should “punish” for the sake of punishment, but possibly a prisoner must suffer to prevent people wanting to come to back into the slammer. I’m certainly confused. Not sure about you? Does anyone read these? I’m not sure if this will ever get back to me. Hmm. Anyway, hopefully this gets me the participation marks I so slavishly grasp after. Cool, bye.

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