What is the Societal Rationale for the Punishment of Criminal Offenders?

Published 18 Apr 2017


In the attempt to lower crime rates and maintain the social order, society generally uses several forms of punishment. The punishments being employed by the society generally includes societal protection, rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution. The employment of these punishments is based on the belief that the ensuing impairment is good in itself, the impairment is for the good of society, and punishment is not regarded as impairment to the criminal offender. Since punishment brings deprivation or pain that people inclined to avoid, intentional imposition of punishment by the society beyond doubt necessitates justification.
Societal Rationale

Under the law, punishment is the lawful imposition of special burdens, or the imposition of deprivations of privacy or freedom or other possessions to which the individual otherwise has a right, for the reason that the individual has been found responsible of some criminal violation, usually concerning impairment to the innocent (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005). Although punishment can be described without mention to any justification, yet it cannot be carried out without such justification. Punishment can be divided into two general philosophies: retributive and utilitarian (Law Library-American Law and Legal Information, 2009). The retributive theory seeks to punish criminal offenders because they deserve to be reprimanded; while utilitarian theory of punishment aims to punish criminal offenders to deter or discourage future crimes.

Based on the utilitarian philosophy, laws should be applied to make the most of society’s happiness, and in view of the fact that both punishment and crime are contradictory with happiness, they should be kept to a minimum.

Prevention is the most important driving force behind the utilitarian theory of punishment (Ball, 2005). Although the theory states that a crime-free society does not exist, yet an effort to inflict as much punishment necessary in order to deter future crimes is still believed to be indispensable. Another utilitarian rationale for punishment is rehabilitation. The objective of rehabilitation is to put a stop to future offenses by providing criminals the ability to be successful within the boundaries of the law.

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Retribution, the oldest societal rationale for punishment, in contrast is intended to guarantee the need of the people for closure that satisfies society’s moral (Free Online Research Papers, 2006). Based on the retributive philosophy, human beings are capable and must enjoy the liberty of making rational choices (The Free Dictionary). To several supporters, punishment is warranted as a form of revenge. The rationale is derived from the wrongfulness of the act carried out by the criminal offenders (Ball, 2005).

To other theorists, however, retribution against a criminal offender is necessary to protect the legitimate rights of both the offender and society. The latter rationale favors the society by rendering the criminals incapable to permanently commit additional offenses as a result of execution or temporarily due to imprisonment. In addition, this method provides criminal offenders an opportunity to reform and a guaranteed second chance.


The leading approaches to justification for punishment of criminal offenders are utilitarian and retributive. Although the diverse justifications for punishment are all effective in assisting the society to manage criminal offenders, yet the idea of punishment, its characterization, and its rationale and practical application throughout the past decades have revealed a noticeable drift away from endeavors to rehabilitate and reform criminals in favor of incarceration and retribution.


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