Criminal Punishment

As a child, it is likely you were given sanctions for doing something bad, for example, failing an exam or breaking something expensive. You could have been grounded or had your TV privileges taken away for a while. The aim of this was most likely to teach you that there are consequences for your actions; but more importantly so that you do things differently next time. This is a type of punishment.

Criminal Punishment Criminal Punishment

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Table of contents

    In this explanation, we will:

    • Define criminal punishment.
    • Explore the purpose of criminal punishment.
    • Look at the different types of criminal punishment.
    • Learn how different sociological perspectives view criminal punishment.

    Definition of criminal punishment

    Criminal punishment works in a very similar way to the above example (with a few more complexities, of course). It refers to a method of controlling and/or reducing crime by punishing criminal offenders. It is complementary to crime prevention strategies but mainly focuses on dealing with the crime after the offence has been committed.

    According to the Collins Dictionary (2022), we can define punishment as the following:

    A penalty or sanction given for any crime or offence".

    Criminal punishment refers to punishment in a lawful setting. Criminal punishment is a form of crime control that focuses on punishments for crimes, rather than prevention.

    The purpose of criminal punishment

    Criminal punishment exists as a form of social control. It aims to maintain order in society by providing a clear line between right and wrong. Laws are put in place by the government to help teach us what we can and can't do. Those who do not follow these rules, and break the law, are at risk of criminal punishment.

    Some crimes come with larger punishments than others, whereas others may be broken and not prosecuted at all. Criminal punishment changes between countries and cultures, with different laws existing in different areas. However, the overall purpose of these laws and subsequent punishments is to keep order in society.

    Let's explore the different types of criminal punishment.

    Types of criminal punishment

    Criminal punishment comprises several different approaches based on the desired outcome. This depends on whether the society or criminal justice system at hand aims to:

    • reduce occurrences of crime overall (reduction)

    • gain retribution for harm caused by a crime, or

    • restore justice to victims of a crime.

    These are very common punishments for criminals. So let us look at each of these desired outcomes in turn.

    Common punishments for criminals

    There are several common types of criminal punishment: deterrence, reduction, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution and restoration.

    Reduction of crime

    Many societies aim to reduce the amount of crime being committed through criminal punishment. Reduction, rehabilitation and deterrence are all some of the most common strategic punishments for criminals.

    Deterrence

    This involves punishing the individual quite harshly to discourage them from future offending. Also, by making an example of them, significant punishments can act as a deterrent to other people who might consider committing the same crime.

    If someone receives a big fine or a long prison sentence for a minor misdemeanour, this will ideally discourage others from doing the same to avoid the same penalty.

    Rehabilitation

    One of the primary purposes of punishment (for certain crimes) is to rehabilitate the criminal offender – ensuring that they undergo reform, change their ways and do not engage in the same criminal behaviour in the future. This gives them a second chance at an honest life.

    Incapacitation

    This is one of the most extreme methods of crime punishment focused on reduction and entails physically removing the capacity for the offender to re-offend in the same area. If they do not have the means or ability to commit the crime, they cannot do it.

    Examples include long-term prison sentences, cutting off hands, chemical castration, or the death penalty.

    Retribution of crime

    This is based on the idea of 'an eye for an eye'; the concept of getting revenge for harm done. Many people in society, especially those who have been victims of violent crime, believe the criminal must pay for their crime for justice to be served. Since the criminal has caused harm, they deserve to have harm inflicted on them in return.

    An example of retributive crime punishment is ascribing the death penalty for murder.

    Crime Punishment, Death penalty infographic map, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The death penalty still exists in most countries in the world.

    Restoration of crime

    Compensatory or restorative actions in crime punishment involve the offender making amends (or attempting to make amends) for the harm they have caused. This can mean paying a fine or providing some form of financial compensation to cover the cost of the damage they have caused.

    It considers the wider concept of 'restorative justice', where the offender and the victim(s) of their crime are brought into communication. Restorative justice signifies a meeting between the individual responsible for the crime and the victim, sometimes with community representatives present. It is an opportunity for the offender to take responsibility for their actions and directly hear how they have impacted others.

    For the victim, discussing or confronting the offender about the harm caused can help them better understand the situation and move towards healing and closure, if they choose.

    Sociological theories of criminal punishment

    Methods of criminal punishment usually involve restricting people’s rights and freedoms as well as sometimes inflicting harm on them. As a result, it can be quite controversial within sociology. There are many theories on criminal punishment, ranging from Durkheim's functionalist approach to Foucault's views about power. Different branches of the field have come to different conclusions on the nature and implications of crime punishment.

    Functionalist view of crime

    Émile Durkheim (1893), stated that the purpose of punishment for crime is to reinforce social regulation. Punishment is a way of upholding social solidarity by reasserting the shared norms and values of society; i.e. what is socially acceptable behaviour and what is not.

    For example, a prison sentence for the committing of a certain crime reaffirms the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, not just for the offender but collectively.

    Durkheim claimed that these rituals of order also act as means of expressing society's collective moral outrage. Durkheim thought criminals should be punished because punishments can morally unite members of society in their expressions concerning the crime, e.g. over how wrong the action is and why it should not be committed.

    According to Durkheim, there are two types of societies - modern and traditional - as well as two corresponding forms of justice:

    • Retributive justice: This is found in traditional societies. There is a strong sense of collective consciousness and solidarity based on similarities to one another. Punishment is severe and cruel and purely exists to express collective outrage.
    • Restitutive justice: This form of justice is more commonly found in modern societies. There is an emphasis on individualism and solidarity is based on interdependence between individuals. Crime damages this relationship and the purpose of punishment is to repair the damage.

    Criminal Punishment, Photograph of metal justice statue with balance scale, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Different societies have different justice systems.

    Marxist view of crime

    Marxism, based on the ideas of Karl Marx, states that the purpose of criminal punishment is to maintain the existing social order. By protecting their property from the working class, punishment serves the interests of the ruling class by upholding the social class hierarchy. It is a repressive state apparatus - keeping the working class in their place by making them afraid to commit crimes, and therefore also discouraging them from rising up against the ruling class.

    Marxists such as Rusche and Kirchheimer (1939) also argue that the type of punishment utilised by society depends on its economic structure. If the economy was not based on the exchange of money, for instance, the payment of fines would not be a punitive measure.

    For Melossi and Pavarini (1981), under capitalism, imprisonment becomes the primary form of crime punishment because the prison system reflects capitalist relations of production. Time is crucial to workers in a capitalist economy as they are paid according to it and give up a significant proportion of it to earn a living. So, they 'pay' for crimes committed by having their time taken away in prison.

    Foucault's view of power

    In his seminal work on the birth of the prison, Michel Foucault ('Discipline and Punish', 1975) pointed out that criminal punishment has changed over time from being cruel, physically coercive and immediate (often involving torture and sometimes death) to focusing more on incarceration and rehabilitation of offenders.

    However, while punishments have become less severe, they have ushered in an area of surveillance and control. He termed this a shift from sovereign power to disciplinary power.

    • Sovereign power: This is the 'traditional' form of power. In pre-modern societies, this was where the ruling body, i.e. a monarch physically punished people's bodies for criminal activity through very dramatic public exercises of power.
    • Disciplinary power: In modern times, punishment is not simply about the body but also the mind and is much more removed from the public eye. Foucault uses the example of the Panopticon - a prison designed so the warden/guards can see into the prison cells at all times, but the prisoners cannot see them, causing the prisoners to behave as if they are being watched even if they are not.

    Foucault theorised that this disciplinary power has infiltrated other societal institutions so that workplaces and schools also function like Panopticon prisons, creating a culture of self-surveillance where people continually behave as if they are being monitored and change their behaviour accordingly. This makes it much more invasive as a means of social control.

    Criminal Punishment Foucault's Panopticon model for prisons StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Panopticon prison is the embodiment of the surveillance state.

    Criminal Punishment - Key takeaways

    • Criminal punishment is when criminal acts are punished to reduce and/or control them.
    • Approaches to criminal punishment include reduction, retribution, and restoration.
    • Durkheim believes that its purpose is to reinforce shared social norms and express collective moral outrage. Traditional and modern societies have different versions of justice - retributive and restitutive.
    • Marxist sociologists argue that criminal punishment upholds the social class order. Under a capitalist system, punishment mirrors exploitative relations of production by making workers 'pay' for their crimes in prison.
    • Foucault theorised that the nature of punishment has changed from being strict and physical to more subtle and psychological, leading to a culture of self-surveillance. Sovereign power has changed to disciplinary power, e.g. the Panopticon.

    References

    1. Collins Dictionary. (2022) https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/punishment
    Frequently Asked Questions about Criminal Punishment

    What is criminal punishment?

    Criminal punishment refers to punishment in a lawful setting. Criminal punishment is a form of crime control that focuses on punishments for crimes, rather than prevention.

    What are the 4 types of criminal punishment?

    There are several main types of criminal punishment: deterrence, reduction, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution and restoration.

    What is the purpose of criminal punishment?

    Criminal punishment exists as a form of social control. It aims to maintain order in society by providing a clear line between right and wrong. Laws are put in place by the government to help teach us what we can and can't do.

    Why should criminals be punished?

    Durkheim thought criminals should be punished because punishments can morally unite members of society in their expressions concerning the crime, e.g. over how wrong the action is and why it should not be committed.

    What are the theories of criminal punishment?

    There are many theories on criminal punishment, ranging from Durkheim's functionalist approach to Foucault's views about power. Different branches of the field have come to different conclusions on the nature and implications of crime punishment.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Provide some examples of incapacitation.

    What is the concept of retribution based on?

    The purpose of rehabilitation is to make the criminal pay for their crime for justice to be served. True or false?

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